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‘Are the Conservatives Willing to Sacrifice Northern Ireland for the Rwanda Scheme?’

What the Government seems to have overlooked is that the European Convention on Human Rights isn’t merely referenced in the Good Friday Agreement – it’s threaded throughout it, writes Emma deSouza

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at a press conference for the launch of new legislation on migrant Channel crossings. Photo: Alamy/Reuters

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Another chapter in the Conservatives’ long-running saga of internal division is set to begin this week, as a showdown looms over Rishi Sunak’s controversial Rwanda Bill. However, despite the Government’s efforts to circumvent the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), there remains another oft-forgotten barricade to its assault on asylum rights: the Good Friday Agreement.

The introduction of the Safety of Rwanda Bill follows a legally-binding treaty signed by the UK and Rwanda. The treaty, alongside the subsequent bill, each declare Rwanda as a ‘safe’ country, barring UK courts from considering otherwise.

The emergency legislation seeks to neuter domestic courts of their autonomy after the UK Supreme Court ruled that the Government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda was unlawful.

There are few more egregious examples of world leaders inventing ‘alternative facts’. The highest court in the UK deemed Rwanda as unsafe, rather than address that legal conclusion, the UK is seeking to create a new one.

Sunak’s Rwanda Bill is a step back from former Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s demands to outright leave the ECHR, which many Conservatives see as an obstacle to achieving their immigration policy, but the Bill still stands at odds with the convention.

The Prime Minister has said that he “will not allow a foreign court to stop Rwanda flights”, referencing the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which has ultimate oversight over the application and compliance to the ECHR.

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The UK has a dualist legal system, which means that it can legislate domestically against international treaties without having to explicitly leave them. This practice does not, however, relieve the UK of its commitment under international law. 

What the Government seems to have overlooked with any great detail is that the ECHR isn’t merely referenced in the Good Friday Agreement, it’s threaded throughout. Any divergence from or weakening of the Convention will contravene UK commitments to the 1998 peace treaty.

The Good Friday Agreement placed an onus on the UK Government to incorporate the ECHR into Northern Ireland law, 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”.

It also created an obligation on the Northern Ireland Assembly and public authorities to adhere to the Convention – “neither the Assembly nor public bodies can infringe” on the ECHR – and further “that key decisions and legislation are proofed to ensure that they do not infringe the ECHR”.

This was given legal standing through the Human Rights Act which is the fundamental basis in UK law for implementation and applicable of the Good Friday Agreement. The Rwanda Bill not only opens up the Human Rights Act, it hacks it to pieces with significant sections disapplied in an effort to prevent courts and public authorities from considering Rwanda unsafe.

This is a pandora’s box when it comes to Northern Ireland and could easily be seen as a wedge for further derogation of applications of the ECHR and court access.

According to one immigration solicitor and coordinator at the Committee on the Administration of Justice, “the Rwanda bill forms part of a broader pattern where the UK government isn’t outright leaving the ECHR, but instead attempting to dismantle it in UK law piece by piece through legislation like this. For Northern Ireland, any such attack on the ECHR and Human Rights Act is a blatant breach of the Good Friday Agreement”.

If Sunak manages to force this bill through what is to stop the Government from overriding potential future judgments against its contested Legacy Act? Or from further splicing and slicing of the Human Rights Act?

The Rwanda Bill largely blocks direct access to the courts and prevents interpretation and consideration of convention case law – all of which directly contradict explicit provisions of the Good Friday Agreement.

A further Northern Ireland based challenge to Sunak’s Bill is the Withdrawal Agreement, which prevents rights in Northern Ireland from being removed as a result of Brexit, including asylum rights, a case could be argued that the Rwanda bill infringes on the right to a safe country.

These difficulties will increasingly rear their head as the Bill proceeds, and the headache of what to do about Northern Ireland will soon return. One school of thought could be to exempt Northern Ireland from the disapplication clauses of the Human Rights Act, but you don’t get to cherry pick the ECHR – it must be applied equally to all citizens. 

The Rwanda Bill is likely to be legally challenged, aside from the obvious overreach and interference with the authority of the courts, the UK could still be found in breach of international law. Home Secretary James Cleverly was unable to make a statement confirming that the provisions of the Rwanda Bill are compatible with convention rights, itself a damning indictment –this isn’t a public departure from the ECHR, but rather one undertaken stealthily. 

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This Government has long been at war with the rule of law, from attacks on legal professionals, to repeated attempts at circumventing legal obligations and international treaties. The Rwanda Bill flies in the face of international human rights standards, placing the UK on course to potentially breach the Withdrawal Agreement, and threatens the Good Friday Agreement – all of which is still not enough for the Nigel Farage wannabes in the Conservative Party.

The ultra-right wing Tories are already briefing that the Bill does not go far enough. It will never be enough.

The Bill heads for its second reading on Tuesday wherein Sunak faces a revolt from his opponents on all sides, should the bill be successful expect more public funding to be squandered. The Government has already spent more than £140 million on its Rwanda policy, without one successful deportation. 

The question at the end of this is just how much are the Conservatives willing to sacrifice to the alter of populist anti-immigrant rhetoric. The rule of law? International standing? The Good Friday Agreement? Or perhaps Northern Ireland as a whole?

The region has been a thorn in Brexiters’ sides, and there is one other alternative that rests not solely on the minds of people who advocate for a United Ireland, but on the minds of those who would sooner be rid of Northern Ireland than to forego their own political agendas.


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