The Government’s proposed British Bill of Rights will not endanger the UK’s membership of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the Northern Ireland Secretary has insisted.
Theresa Villiers said she did not expect the UK to face “expulsion” by other signatories of the ECHR if her Conservative administration enacted its plan to give British courts ultimate authority on human rights challenges.
Ms Villiers has faced pressure to outline the consequences for Northern Ireland of repealing the current Human Rights Act.
The 1998 Act gives effect to the ECHR in the Province’s courts – a move that was an integral plank of the Good Friday peace agreement of the same year.
Human rights groups have claimed the adoption of the Tories’ British Bill of Rights will undermine the ECHR and will therefore represent a “breach” of Northern Ireland’s peace accord.
Ms Villiers said the new law would remain true to the principles of the ECHR.
“It is about injecting a bit of common sense into the system and to address the mission creep we have seen on human rights,” she said.
“At its heart the big change is the people who will finally determine these questions are the UK courts rather than the Strasbourg court.
“But we are going to continue to protect fundamental rights enshrined in the European Convention.”
She added: “It’s perfectly possible to repeal the Human Rights Act and replace it with a UK Bill of Rights while remaining a signatory to the convention.
“I think that should be fine. There’s no indication of any sort of plans to expel the UK from the convention on human rights.”
Ms Villiers also warned that the time has come for Northern Ireland’s leaders to deliver their side of the Stormont House political deal.
The Secretary of State said the Government had lived up to its commitments, such as offering extra financial support to ministers in Belfast and passing legislation to devolve corporation tax, and now it was the turn of local politicians to make good on their pledges.
She rejected any suggestion that the negotiation on welfare could effectively be rendered meaningless by further multi-billion pound cuts to the UK’s benefits system envisaged by the Conservative government.
“It’s important for the Stormont House Agreement to be implemented,” she said.
“Yes, there are further welfare changes to be made in the future but again the choice will be open to the Northern Ireland Executive in terms of how they respond to them.”