By Patrick Corrigan
David Cameron’s new Government is planning the biggest rollback in rights in British history. It has pledged to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a lesser British Bill of Rights, while also reducing the UK’s adherence to the European Convention of Human Rights.
The downgrading of human rights protections across the UK is bad news for ordinary people throughout the country and sends out a worrying message internationally.
But for Northern Ireland, where our 1998 peace agreement and the political and policing structures which flow from it are built on a foundation of human rights, the plan is downright reckless.
Given the history of political discrimination and mistrust in policing in Northern Ireland, binding human rights obligations have been crucial in building and bolstering public confidence in these key structures post-Troubles.
The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement obliged the UK to incorporate the European Convention of Human Rights into law in Northern Ireland – subsequently done through the Human Rights Act.
The Assembly can only make laws which are compatible with the Human Rights Act, a key safeguard in the region.
Our post-Troubles policing arrangements are also heavily reliant on the human rights laws. Trust in the reformed policing structures is seen as one of the key success stories of the peace process.
But the Government’s proposals – expected in the Queen’s Speech next week – could undermine that hard-won progress. The Irish Government, a co-signatory to the agreement, has already expressed its concern. Elsewhere, the European Convention on Human Rights also has a central role in devolution arrangements for Scotland and Wales.
The devolution settlements can only be picked apart by Westminster with the agreement of, or by riding roughshod over, the legislatures in the three devolved countries.
Given how much more is at stake here, is it too much to ask for the Northern Ireland Assembly to unite in refusing to roll over while our rights are removed?
Patrick Corrigan is Northern Ireland programme director of Amnesty International