Public body declares that in spite of Brexit Northern Ireland must ape the EU’s laws on human rights – or it will launch court fights

A public body has declared that Northern Ireland must essentially be led by the EU when it comes to human rights law.

Alyson Kilpatrick
Alyson Kilpatrick

The NI Human Rights Commission (HRC) made this assertion in a major report, published today, setting out its programme of work for the next three years.

The introduction to the report is written by boss Alyson Kilpatrick, and states that “if certain European Union equality laws are changed... to improve the protection of human rights, then Northern Ireland must keep pace with those changes”.

The HRC goes on to say that it will consider launching court challenges if it considers that “rights protection [has] diminished as a result of the UK having left the EU”.

It will also do this if NI “fails to keep pace with changes in EU equality laws”.

CAN THIS BE THE CASE AFTER BREXIT?

The HRC says that whenever the UK signed up to the Northern Ireland Protocol in 2020, it agreed that there would be no rollback of rights due to Brexit.

Section 2 of the Protocol says the UK “shall ensure no diminution of rights” – specifically, those spelled out in a segment of the Belfast Agreement entitled “Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity”.

That bit of the 1998 deal lists several bulletpoints, including these core ones:

> People have the right to “free political thought”:

> The right to “freedom and expression of religion”;

> And the right to “equal opportunity in all social and economic activity, regardless of class, creed, disability, gender or ethnicity”.

Added to that, Section 2 of the Protocol also promises that the UK will uphold six particular bits of European law (known as directives) governing equality between the sexes and among different races.

(To be exact, these are directives 2004/113/EC, 2006/54/EC, 2000/43/EC, 2000/78/EC, 2010/41/EU, and 79/7/EEC).

WHY DOES THIS MATTER?

A long-held objective of some conservative politicians has been the scrapping (or at least re-writing) of the Human Rights Act, which basically encoded the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law back in 1998.

Last December, the Tory government unveiled a public consultation over plans to “revise” the act.

The government said this was being done to “deter spurious human rights claims”.

It added: “It is estimated that as many as 70% of successful human rights challenges are brought by foreign national offenders, who cite a right to family life in the first instance when appealing deportation orders.”

On one hand, the government said in December that the UK “should not blindly follow” the path taken by EU rulemakers on human rights.

But on the other hand, the same statement said that the government envisages “retaining the UK’s commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights”.

Rather, it is a matter of how the UK chooses to interpret those rights, the government indicated.

‘WE ARE IN CHARGE OF OUR OWN LAWS’

Kate Hoey, the former Labour MP and Brexit campaigner, told the News Letter: “The HRC does not make laws in our country, and I will certainly not be looking to them to give advice on the way in which the UK government makes decisions. We have a right, as our own country, to do what we think is right – not follow blindly the EU.”

The HRC said today that it “has been tested operationally and financially; resources are limited – more than ever”

However its annual spending often changes notably from year to year, and has recently increased.

For example, back in 2011/12, it stood at £1.7m.

This then plunged to £1.2m by 2015/16, then rose again to £1.6m in 2020/21.

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