Seanad address on the effect of the repeal of the UK Human Rights Act on the Good Friday Agreement14 May 2015
Speech by Minister Flanagan to the Seanad on the effect of the repeal of the UK Human Rights Act on the Good Friday Agreement
14 May 2015
I welcome this morning’s debate.
The commitment of Ireland to the promotion and protection of human rights is an underlying principle of Ireland’s foreign policy and is a priority for the 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 of Human Rights protection system. Early in my ministry I met with Thorbjørn 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.
I should note clearly at the outset there is not at this time any legislation before the British Parliament at Westminster to repeal the 1998 UK Human Rights Act. Indeed the new British Government has not yet published its legislative programme for this parliamentary term, although it is expected to do so later this month.
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 cannot be taken for granted and must be fully respected.
We work continuously 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 fully respected.
For this reason I was 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 Government’s best encouragement.
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, 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 effect 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.
The 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.
We will follow closely all developments in this regard.
I am grateful to colleagues in the Seanad for providing us with the opportunity to discuss this important issue, which cuts to heart of the Government’s approach to peace and stability on this island as well as to the Government’s commitment to the international human rights framework more generally.
The Good Friday Agreement, including its provisions on human rights, was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the people of this island.
The Government continues to work with the UK Government to ensure that the Agreement’s legacy thrives.
Again, it is important to note that there is not at this time any legislation before the House of Commons to repeal the 1998 Human Rights Act and that the UK Government has not yet published its legislative programme for this parliamentary term.
The Government will follow the development of these matters very closely.
Next week, I will meet with Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, MP, for the first time since her re-appointment.
I can assure this House that I will underline to her the importance which the Government attaches to human rights in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, and also a number of the particular concerns that you have expressed here today.
Allow me to thank you again for providing the opportunity to discuss this important matter. I will keep the Houses of the Oireachtas informed of developments as appropriate.