I welcome the Minister. The European Convention on Human Rights which was drafted in 1950 and has been in force since 1953 has had a very positive effect on the lives of Europeans. I will not trouble the House with a list of all the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights and the positive effect they have had on this country and beyond. An effect that can be seen is a greater tolerance of diversity and understanding of our fellow citizens in areas such as criminal justice, the right to a fair trial, the protection of the home, the rights of people with disabilities and privacy - the list goes on.
What has motivated me to raise this matter is a concern that the newly elected British Government has recommitted to repealing the UK Human Rights Act. While it is entitled to do as it pleases, given its mandate, there are Irish and peace process dimensions to the decision. The Good Friday Agreement committed both jurisdictions to incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights domestically. It specifically committed the Republic to ensure at least an equivalent level of human rights protection as would pertain in Northern Ireland at a time when protections in the North were seen as greater than in the Republic. I do not need to remind anyone present that the Good Friday Agreement was agreed on a broad front that included putting weapons beyond use and a commitment on both sides to the value of human rights. This we both did.
We incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights through the European Convention on Human Rights Act and the British through the UK Human Rights Act. What was done was, in truth, a bargain and an act of trust where both sides committed to actions that would build confidence in one another. The new British Government now seems to be committing to weakening that trust, although perhaps unintentionally, something I do not say lightly.
The Good Friday Agreement, under the UK legislation section, commits the British Government to complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights, with direct access to the courts and remedies for breach of the convention, including power for the courts to overrule Assembly legislation on the grounds of inconsistency. What is now proposed at Westminster is withdrawal from these commitments. It is speculated that the UK Government will draw up a new Act, a British Bill of Rights as it is called, which will specifically not oblige the courts to adhere to the rules of the European Court of Human Rights, with provisions granting Parliament the power to ignore the European Court if it so wishes and one where the courts will have no power to overrule the assembly on grounds of inconsistency. It appears to be a plan that would place the British Government in breach of its commitments under the Good Friday Agreement, a bilateral international agreement lodged with the United Nations. One of the first rules of international law is that any bilateral treaty means what the signatories state it does. During the course of the debate on the citizenship referendum, a clarifying statement was released by both Governments, indicating that the proposed amendment had no effect on the Agreement.
In addition, the treaty is not justiciable. No citizen in any jurisdiction can go to the courts to enforce its provision. This means that the Irish Government must insist that the British Government does not abandon its commitments under the Agreement for narrow sectional political reasons. Therefore, before any repeal of the UK Human Rights Act, I urge the Minister to indicate to the British Government that any such unilateral withdrawal from its commitments under the Good Friday Agreement would be a grave cause for concern to the Irish Government.