Fundamental rights / Human Rights Act, ECHR and Government accountability

25 years on, the Good Friday Agreement is under threat

Posted on 06 Apr 2023

Monday 10 April marks 25 years since the Belfast Agreement, widely known as the Good Friday Agreement, was signed in 1998.

Supported in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, this historical deal brought an end to the violence of the Troubles.

But now, with the Government attacking everyone’s human rights, the Good Friday Agreement is under threat.

Human Rights and the Good Friday Agreement

The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR for short) was drawn up in the aftermath of the Second World War. The rights and freedoms we’re all familiar with come from the Convention. It protects us from things like torture, unlawful killing and slavery, and guarantees our freedom of speech, religion, privacy and much more.

The Convention is baked into the Northern Ireland peace process. The Good Friday Agreement placed a duty on the UK Government to incorporate the ECHR into Northern Irish law so that people could challenge injustice in the courts if their rights were breached.

This was achieved through our Human Rights Act (HRA for short). The HRA forces public authorities to respect our rights, and empowers people to challenge them in court if they don’t. The HRA applies to everyone equally.

The Rights Removal Bill

In 2022, the Government published its so-called ‘Bill of Rights’. But instead of enhancing rights and freedoms in the UK, it’s actually a ‘Rights Removal Bill’.

The Bill would rip up our Human Rights Act, allow the Government to pick and choose who has rights, and give licence to public authorities to ignore everyone’s rights.

Ripping up the Human Rights Act would dismantle the Good Friday Agreement.

Thankfully a huge national campaign against the Bill has seen it placed on the backburner again and again, and the Government has now admitted it has been “deprioritised”.

But this doesn’t mean it’s necessarily gone for good – and we have already seen some of the Rights Removal Bill’s proposals pop up elsewhere, like in the Government’s new Illegal Migration Bill.

The Illegal Migration Bill

The Good Friday Agreement includes the “full incorporation in Northern Ireland law of the ECHR”, with Convention rights being enjoyed by “everyone in the community”. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Consortium and the PILS Project have warned that the Bill risks undermining this vision.

Under our Human Rights Act, judges have to interpret laws in a way that is compatible with people’s human rights. But the Government’s new flagship Bill says that this important part of the HRA doesn’t apply to it and weakens people’s power to challenge deportation decisions in the courts.

This means migrants targeted by the Illegal Migration Bill will no longer have the full protection of our Human Rights Act.

The Government has admitted that it can’t state that the Bill will be compatible with the ECHR, but they want to continue with it anyway. This is a dangerous and provocative step that would not only lead to people’s rights being abused, but also a potentially explosive fight with the European Court of Human Rights.

And once the Human Rights Act has been tossed aside here, the door will be open for the Government to do the same again and remove rights from any other group of people it wants. In fact, plans are in place already. Hot on the heels of the Illegal Migration Bill, the new Victims and Prisoners Bill also blocks off the use of the HRA in release decisions in the same way.

These proposals must not be allowed to become law.

Dangerous government rhetoric

Alongside all of this, there is also the looming threat of the Government dragging the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights altogether.

Despite the Prime Minister stating that we will remain within the ECHR, senior Government ministers have been quoted time and again saying “nothing is off the table” when quizzed about membership.

At best this demonstrates a dangerous lack of understanding of the peace process, and at worst a wilful disregard for it. There is no Good Friday Agreement without the Convention.

The deal was also signed into law with overwhelming support in referenda in both the North and the South of Ireland. Any move that could put the Agreement in jeopardy will also have major democratic consequences.

What we’re doing about it

Liberty is working with a huge coalition of human rights organisations, campaigners, grassroots activists, and lawyers – including colleagues in Northern Ireland – fighting to protect our Human Rights Act and the UK’s membership of the Convention.

We support the Northern Ireland Human Rights Consortium’s campaign to Make Our Future Fair. They have a petition on their website that you can sign.

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