Revived plan to scrap the Human Rights Act adds fuel to the fires of Brexit controversy

The surprising recommitment of the new UK Justice Secretary Liz Truss to a new British Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act adds a new complexity to the Brexit debate. If there are disagreements over  the legitimacy of applying the Brexit referendum result  to Northern Ireland and Scotland, there can be none about the central importance of the HRA to the Good Friday Agreement.

Yes it’s true that the HRA is not part of the EU but EU membership requires compliance. More to the point, the HRA is firmly embedded in the GFA and the British legislation that implements it.

In the short period when Theresa May was campaigning for the Conservative leadership, she did an abrupt U turn from her position of only a few weeks previously to consider withdrawal from not only the Court but the European Convention. There was no majority in parliament for it she said.

But now Truss has resurrected the British Bill which would not necessarily involve leaving the Convention. Conservative critics blame interpretations of the HRA for the inordinately long time it takes to deport hate preachers like Abu Qatada or bring to trial the likes of Anjem Choudary. These were the bane of May’s life as Home Secretary and she didn’t try to hide her frustration. In Ireland north and south concern centres more on defending the new justice system from abuse, as a legacy of the Troubles. For that the HRA is the cornerstone.  The gap in concerns is glaring.

The Times’ Irish section has quickly identified “the threat to the Good Friday Agreement.”

Darragh O’Brien, foreign affairs spokesman for Fianna Fail, said that Britain owed the Irish government an explanation. “The British justice minister’s confirmation that Britain will now go ahead with unilaterally repealing a key piece of legislation backing up the Good Friday agreement is a source of serious concern,” he said.

“The stability of the settlement in the North can never be taken for granted. The Irish government is a co-guarantor of the Good Friday agreement and at the very least there needs to be proper consultation by the British if they are going to repeal legislation that underpins the agreement.

“In addition, as we seek to mitigate the worst effects of Brexit, we will need to be able to engage fully with Britain on the basis of sound information. I would like to see Mr Flanagan seek an explanation from Britain on why they are proceeding with this change, when he had previously been assured that they would not.”

The House of Lords EU justice sub-committee had warned that a bill of rights would also risk upsetting devolution settlements and would face opposition from Stormont and Edinburgh.

However all may not be lost. As the Times’ The Brief (£) reports:

 A new UK Bill of Rights would have at least to include all the rights of the Human Rights Act even if new ones were included. However there is backing in Whitehall for trying to define the scope of some rights more closely, such as limiting the possibility of claims brought against British troops in Iraq

English ministers, have persistent blind spots about devolution to Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland and seem unaware of how it complicates their pet political projects. For all his faults this did not apply to her predecessor Michael Gove who was thought to have kicked the British Bill into the long grass.

A British Bill would have a tough passage through parliament and may require the consent of Holyrood and Stormont. These are conditions which critics are seeking to apply to Brexit  and greatly add fuel to the fires of controversy.


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  • Dan

    i don’t know any Unionist who gives a flying one about the Belfast Agreement. It’s an utterly discredited farce.

  • Old Mortality

    I don’t think many Unionists – apart from legal aid parasites- will be overly concerned at the prospect of European judges no longer being able to adjudicate on UK domestic disputes.

  • chrisjones2

    The Act could remain …but UK Courts could take the decisions. And its up to our own dear Executive to decide if it wants a separate NI one

    In any case this is a brief from Liz Truss so who who on earth (least of all the Home Secretary herself) knows what her intentions are. It may be that some minor derogations are planned to help control the abuses of the peddlars of hate like Mr Choudray and stop his inevitable campaign of legal; challenges.

  • terence patrick hewett

    No-one knows what is going on with PM May and her merrie band of funsters but I would not be suprised that the ex-home secretary would see this as a golden opportunity to divest ourselves of the vast imported army of very violent criminals and druggies. One strike and yr oot.

    PS. There is a very interesting article over at the Graun by the marxist Martin Jacques:

    “Francis Fukuyama writes in a recent excellent essay in Foreign Affairs: “‘Populism’ is the label that political elites attach to policies supported by ordinary citizens that they don’t like.” Populism is a movement against the status quo. It represents the beginnings of something new, though it is generally much clearer about what it is against than what it is for. It can be progressive or reactionary, but more usually both.”

    The death of neoliberalism and the crisis in western politics

  • AntrimGael

    Why all the mock indignation? When the Tories got in with an overall majority it has been a big, right wing, Dickensian Christmas every day for them. They have shafted the most vulnerable in society and will go about dismantling human rights for the rest of us. They will now reward for big business for bankrolling them by slashing employee maternity rights, sickness rights, health and safety etc, all underscored by the Human Rights Act. They will also further protect their sinister security agencies by giving them carte blanche and political cover to carry out their murderous, dirty deeds in the North, and in Britain, and they have stuck two fingers up to the Irish government and Edinburgh over the GFA and Scottish devolution.
    However they will do it with very little opposition. Dublin doesn’t have, and never has had, the cajones to stand up to London while the Shinners and SDLP are weak and incapable; they won’t rock the boat while their wee, comfortable club up on the hill pays out so well. The trade unions are chocolate teapots and completely irrelevant now and there will be no bother from that quarter either so welcome to Toryland and Brexit; like garlic bread…’s the future!

  • john millar

    There there don`t upset yourself it may not be as bad as that

  • Sprite

    Although I’m not a unionist, my friends who are don’t see the world through the narrow prism that many nationalist and republican contributors to Slugger seem to possess. On this one, I’m sure most unionists don’t give a moment’s thought about the Good Friday Agreement, that’s an obsession of politically engaged nationalists. Unionists I talk to just want stability within the union. Issues like whether the Human Rights Act or a new UK Bill of Rights has pre-eminence are irrelevant for the vast majority.

  • AntrimGael

    Indeed imagine Unionists having the narrow prism of ‘a Protestant state for a Protestant people; one party majority rule; the Special Powers Act; gerrymandering; the B Specials; shoot to kill; discrimination on jobs, housing, playparks, sports pitches etc….perish the thought! So open-minded, fair and non sectarian are they that these things just wouldn’t happen…as I awaken from my Bobby Ewing Dallas dream.

  • AntrimGael

    Tell that to the disabled, unemployed and vulnerable especially over in Britain where the suicide and mental health illness rates have rocketed sky high ever since the Tories have come into power. They have truly earned the ‘Nasty Party’ title as Teresa May admitted to at a Tory Party conference several years ago.

  • Surveyor

    So the terms outlined within it are now void?

  • eamoncorbett

    The Tories now wield the same power as the old Communist party did in the Soviet Union , disparate opposition

  • Katyusha

    Maybe someone should point out to them that it was the Good Friday Agreement that brought the stability they apparently value. The instablilty that preceded it benefited no-one, while the partisan state before that benefited only the select few… and created the problems that have dogged us for almost a century, through their greed, myopia, and contempt for their own citizens.
    The GFA doesn’t look too bad, in contrast.

  • NotNowJohnny

    Of course what many unionists don’t seem to realise is that (what they consider) irrelevant things such as the application of the HRA in NI, the successful implementation of the GFA and certain things resulting from the UKs membership of the EU (e.g an open border) are things which contribute significantly to Northern Ireland’s stability within the Union. Why they don’t realise this is something which continues to bemuse me. The question is why do many unionists so often support things which could potentially threaten Northern Ireland’s stability within the union or oppose things which could help ensure the stability of Northern Ireland’s within the union?

  • NotNowJohnny

    Can you provide links to any serious work that concludes that the GFA is discredited? All three strands of the GFA seem to be working well, indeed the Finance Commitee of the Assembly was recalled from recess today. One could argue that rather than being a discredited farce, the GFA has never worked more effectively than now. If anything in northern Ireland’s constitutional history can accurately be labelled a discredited farce it is surely the Government of Ireland Act 1920 which created the old Unionist dominated Stormont.

  • NotNowJohnny

    I don’t think there’s any intention of the U.K. withdrawing from the convention so the European judges will still be there adjudicating. Of course whether the said unionists realise this is another matter. Many didn’t seem to realise what they were actually supporting under Brexit either.

  • chris

    They wont be able to scrap the human rights act also Scotland is going to stop this there is alot of oppsition, we are not leaving the EU and they only have a majority of 12 so they cant pass a bill to scrap it

  • chris

    Not really

  • NotNowJohnny

    I’m not sure what you’re suggesting here. The Act could remain ….. but the UK Courts could take the decisions. At the moment the Act remains and the UK courts take (most of the) decisions. While we don’t know yet what a bill of rights would look like, while the UK remains a signatory to the ECHR the judges in Strasbourg will still have the final say on cases which are brought there. I suspect that there are those who will support getting rid of the HRA who misunderstand completely what the implications are and will wake up the day after and wonder why European judges are still adjudicating on UK issues in Strasbourg. The question is will they turn out to be the same people who supported Brexit and then afterwards felt the need to write a letter begging to remain part of the single market.

  • cu chulainn

    Do you prefer how things were before that? The present situation isn’t perfect but who in their right mind wants to bring NI back to the 80s?

  • eireanne3

    a rather pessimistic view that is shared here – whether it’s a hard or a soft brexit

  • Thought Criminal

    No, that was the military thrashing that the IRA received. The Belfast Agreement was unnecessary appeasement and the sooner it is dismantled entirely the better. The scrapping of this ECHR nonsense can’t come soon enough.

  • Sir Rantsalot

    What are sickness rights?

  • NotNowJohnny

    I’m not sure that your claim that ‘Dublin doesn’t have, and never has had the cajoles to stand up to London’ is correct. The hooded men case is an excellent good example of Dublin ‘standing up’ to London in relation to Human Rights and one that demonstrates that your claim is incorrect.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    The Belfast Agreement remains the one guarantee that the right to a British identity and British passport will not be suspended, when, at some point ten years from now, the demographic alters and, perhaps, a majority starts to demand a United Ireland.

    “1(vi) … recognise the birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both Governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland.”

    It’s not simply those parts you dislike which will “go away”.

  • chrisjones2

    Given developments in France Germany and Belgium it may be that some of the balances in the interpretation of the Convention need to change in the common interest.

    Other treaties on Refugees etc may also need amendment to facilitate terrorists who would exploit them to gain entry to states for terrorist purposes.

    So what? The law should be a living thing that adapts to changing times

  • Reader

    SeaanUiNeill: The Belfast Agreement remains the one guarantee that the right to a British identity and British passport will not be suspended, when, at some point ten years from now, the demographic alters and, perhaps, a majority starts to demand a United Ireland.
    There are nationalists round here who will say that the GFA will not last an instant longer than the Union itself.

  • OneNI

    That’ll be the same Tories who have pushed Employment and Economic Activity higher than they have ever been?

  • aquifer

    The GFA architecture was to include a bill of rights reflecting the special consideration of the circumstances of Northern Ireland.

    Lets cut bureaucracy and legal fees and have one UK of rights including protections against armed sectarian conspiracies, attacks against family homes, threatening murals, hate speech etc

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Just as there were Unionists who rescinded the STV system in 1928, a system intended to offer some protection against a fixed Unionist hegemony here. It is clear that Unionism on its own will not have the majority to protect such things by force. Perhaps if they had learnt to trust Constitutional safeguards back in 1912/14 we might not be facing such a bitterly polarised position today.

    But what has happened, has happened. the point is, this constitutional safeguard IS the only real safeguard of British Identity, and knocking it does little to assure those polities bound to underwrite it that Unionism requires their support.

  • Thomas Girvan

    As opposed to the Irish Republic/Free State which was non sectarian and showed absolutely no discrimination in favour of Roman Catholicism. A model of a modern and tolerant secularism.
    (This, by the way, is sarcasm and should be interpreted as such)..