Thursday, 14 May 2015
I welcome the Minister to the House. The European Convention on Human Rights, which was drafted in 1950 and has been in force since 1953, has had a very positive effect on the lives of Europeans. I will not trouble the House with a list of all the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights and the positive effect they have had on this country and beyond. An effect that can be seen is a greater tolerance of diversity and understanding of our fellow citizens in areas such as criminal justice, the right to a fair trial, the protection of the home, the rights of people with disabilities and privacy - the list goes on.
What motivated me to raise this matter is a concern that the newly elected British Government has recommitted to repealing the UK Human Rights Act. While it is entitled to do as it pleases, given its mandate, there are Irish and peace process dimensions to the decision. The Good Friday Agreement committed both jurisdictions to incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights domestically. It specifically committed the Republic to ensure at least an equivalent level of human rights protection as would pertain in Northern Ireland at a time when protections in the North were seen as greater than in the Republic. I do not need to remind anyone present that the Good Friday Agreement was agreed on a broad front that included putting weapons beyond use and a commitment on both sides to the value of human rights. This we both did.
We incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights through the European Convention on Human Rights Act and the British through the UK Human Rights Act. What was done was, in truth, a bargain and an act of trust where both sides committed to actions that would build confidence in one another. The new British Government now seems to be committing to weakening that trust, though perhaps unintentionally, something I do not say lightly.
The Good Friday Agreement, under the UK legislation section, commits the British Government to complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights, with direct access to the courts and remedies for breach of the convention, including power for the courts to overrule Assembly legislation on the grounds of inconsistency. What is now proposed in Westminster is withdrawal from those commitments. It is speculated that the UK Government will draw up a new Act, a British bill of rights as it is called, which will specifically not oblige the courts to adhere to the rules of the European Court of Human Rights, with provisions granting Parliament the power to ignore the European Court if it so wishes and one where the courts will have no power to overrule the assembly on grounds of inconsistency.
It would appear to be a plan that would place the British Government in breach of its commitments under the Good Friday Agreement, which is a bilateral international agreement lodged with the United Nations. One of the first rules of international law is that any bilateral treaty means what the signatories say it does. During the course of the debate on the citizenship referendum, a clarifying statement was released by both Governments, indicating that the proposed amendment had no effect on the agreement.
In addition, the treaty is not justiciable. No citizen in any jurisdiction can go to the courts to enforce its provision. This means the Irish Government must insist that the British Government does not abandon its commitments under the agreement for narrow sectional political reasons. Therefore, before any repeal of the UK Human Rights Act I would urge the Minister to indicate to the British Government that any such unilateral withdrawal from its commitments under the Good Friday Agreement would be a grave cause for concern to the Irish Government.
I thank Senator Naughton for raising this important issue. Ireland's commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights is an underlying principle of Ireland's foreign policy and is a priority for this Government. Ireland is currently a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council and we pursue our human rights priorities in many international fora. Ireland is a firm supporter of the European Court of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights' protection system.
Early in my Ministry I had the opportunity to meet Thørbjern Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and reaffirmed Ireland's strong support for the Council of Europe and for the European Court of Human Rights. It should be noted, however, that there is no legislation currently before the British Parliament at Westminster to repeal the 1998 UK Human Rights Act. Indeed, the new British Government has yet to publish its legislative programme for this parliamentary term, although I expect it will do so in the next few weeks.
On the broad question of human rights and the Good Friday Agreement, the views of the Government are clear and unchanged. The protection of human rights in Northern Ireland law, predicated on the European Convention of Human Rights, is one of the key principles underpinning the Agreement. As a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government takes very seriously its responsibility to safeguard its institutions and principles. Protecting the human rights aspects of the Good Friday Agreement is not only a shared responsibility between the two Governments in terms of the welfare of the people of Northern Ireland, but is also an obligation on them as parties to the international treaty, lodged with the UN, in which the Agreement was enshrined.
The fundamental role of human rights in guaranteeing peace and stability in Northern Ireland can by no means be taken for granted and must be fully respected. We work continually with the British Government and with the power-sharing Executive in Belfast in support of the Good Friday Agreement institutions and principles as the foundational architecture underpinning the peace process. The Government believes that the Good Friday Agreement's provisions should be at all times fully respected. It is for this reason that I was somewhat disappointed that a renewed commitment to a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, based on the European Convention of Human Rights, as provided for by the Good Friday Agreement, was not included in the Stormont House Agreement, despite the best encouragement of this Government.
A key chapter of the Good Friday Agreement is dedicated to "rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity". The formal human rights architecture, including the European Convention of Human Rights, is woven into the structures of the agreements in order to give shape and effect to their principles and aspirations. The concrete importance of the human rights architecture is evident across a range of areas, from politics to policing to dealing with the legacy of the past. In the context of the Good Friday Agreement, the British Government undertook to "complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), with direct access to the courts, and remedies for breach of the Convention, including power for the courts to overrule Assembly legislation on grounds of inconsistency". This undertaking was given in the 1998 UK Human Rights Act. The Irish Government, for its part, took steps to strengthen the protection of human rights in this jurisdiction by enacting the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003.
Placing human rights at the heart of the peace process in Northern Ireland has helped to ensure the participation and trust of all communities. A shared emphasis on human rights and all that this implies is part of what makes the peace process credible. This Government will work closely with the UK Government to ensure that the protection of human rights remains at the heart of civic life, politics and ongoing societal change in Northern Ireland. I assure the Senator and the House that we will follow closely all developments in this regard.
I thank the Minister for his assurances. One of the defining moments in our recent history was the constitutional settlement of Northern Ireland, on which people North and South of the Border voted. I do not think it should be undermined for any short-term political expediency in Westminster. As the Minister rightly said, human rights formed an integral part of that treaty not only as a safeguard against unwelcome acts within the Assembly, but also because this gave the people of Northern Ireland an assurance there was an independent force at play to prevent the descent into the sectarianism of the past. I welcome the fact the Minister will be working closely with the British Government on this because I think it an area of concern.
I am very grateful to Senator Naughton for providing me with the opportunity to discuss this important issue, which, in many respects, cuts to the heart of the Government's approach to peace and stability on this island, as well as our commitment to the international human rights framework on a more general basis. The Good Friday Agreement, including its provisions on human rights, was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of people on this island, as Senator Naughton said. We will continue to work with the UK Government to ensure the Agreement's legacy thrives and, as I said, I will follow developments on these matters very closely.
I have arranged a meeting next week with the recently re-appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers. I look forward to having this matter on the agenda. I wish to assure the House that I will underline to her the importance which this Government attaches to human rights in the context of the Good Friday Agreement and also a number of particular concerns that have been raised by the Senator this morning.