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16 June 2022

Doesn’t the government know that leaving the ECHR would breach the Good Friday Agreement?

The agreement is crucial to peace in Northern Ireland.

By James Conor Patterson

Not even a month has passed since the heartfelt final episode of Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls and already its hopeful message about the future of Northern Ireland looks out of date. Though the Channel 4 series was ostensibly a sitcom, it always took pains to remind its audience how fragile and hard-won peace in the region was. Just before credits, the final scene of the pointedly titled “The Agreement” depicts Grandpa Joe leaving the polling station at Derry’s Guildhall hand in hand with his youngest granddaughter. The date was 22 May 1998 and the verdict of two referendums on the Good Friday Agreement was as close to consensus as the island of Ireland is ever likely to get: 71.1 per cent in favour of it in the north, 94.4 per cent in favour in the south.

This is one of many reasons why the UK government leaving the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), as it has suggested it might to fulfil its policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda, would be not only dangerous but illegal. The ECHR – along with controversial conventions such as early release for prisoners involved in paramilitary activity – is enshrined within the agreement, and as such the UK is bound to it. The intention was to ensure that citizens in Northern Ireland had the right to appeal to a higher court, since it was recognised that in previous cases related to the Troubles – those of the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six – the British justice system could not always be relied upon to be fair and impartial.

That the ECHR may be inconvenient to the Conservative Party’s egregious Rwanda plan is irrelevant. Dismantling the UK’s association with it breaks both domestic and international law. Ironic, considering that the Tories have almost exclusively presented “illegal migration” as a law and order issue.

What is yet more worrying, however, is that this marks only the latest in a long line of statements designed to undermine the Good Friday Agreement. On 15 June Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, announced that it was the government’s intention to unilaterally change key aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol, one of many Brexit clauses agreed with the EU to allow Northern Ireland to remain within the single market, and thereby preserve freedom of movement across the island of Ireland. The government’s decision to backtrack on this, Truss said, was taken because “the majority of people in Northern Ireland believe that the protocol needs to change”. This despite the fact that according to a recent poll conducted by the arch-Brexiteer Lord Ashcroft, 57 per cent of people in Northern Ireland would be happy to see the protocol remain in place with nothing more than “some adjustments”.

Wilful or not, ministers’ statements betray an outrageous ignorance of the Good Friday Agreement. Indeed, the fact that this most recent call for the UK to leave the ECHR originated in a now-deleted Facebook post from the MP Jonathan Gullis, an assistant to the Northern Ireland Secretary, who said: “The ECHR has no place in the UK judicial system. The government needs to free itself from it entirely!” This only shows that the government might be acting in bad faith. If this is the case, it has worrying implications for the UK’s commitment, not only to maintaining peace on the island of Ireland, but to legislation enshrined to guarantee the human rights of its own citizens. And when you consider that the other country to leave the ECHR this year is Russia, it sets a very worrying precedent indeed.

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[See also: Why Britain is once again the sick man of Europe]

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