Northern Ireland

Migration judgment ‘a victory for human rights’

Human Rights Consortium director says people in the north including anyone coming as a refugee or asylum seeker needs the security of basic human rights to defend them from ‘poor decision making’

The bulk of evidence has already been heard in the Coagh inquest, apart from Soldier F’s testimony
(Liam McBurney/PA)

Last Monday’s judgment at Belfast High Court that significant parts of the Illegal Migration Act cannot be applied in Northern Ireland was a welcome victory for the protection of human rights.

That it was greeted with shock by the UK Government is surprising, given that many of us have been warning them that the legislation was clearly in violation of our existing human rights laws.

The UK Government spent over a decade trying to undermine the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and its domestic form the Human Rights Act (HRA) because it provided vital tools to challenge government decision making.

When they eventually realised that a full frontal attack to remove those protections couldn’t be achieved without undermining our peace process (access to Convention rights was a core commitment of the Agreement) they instead targeted those protections indirectly by introducing legislation that limited access to those rights for certain individuals – namely asylum seekers and refugees in the form of the Illegal Migration Act (IMA) and Rwanda Act.

The IMA would have subjected anyone entering the UK ‘irregularly’ to mandatory detention and removal. It would have removed access to basic human rights protections like the Convention, the Refugee Convention and many EU and International laws protecting the rights of asylum seekers.

Essentially deciding that anyone coming here illegally, regardless of their circumstances, was not allowed the protection of basic human rights. So human, just minus the rights.

Thankfully those same proposals were clearly at odds with UK human rights laws that apply in Northern Ireland, as the legislation was found to be in violation of both the ECHR and Article 2 of the Windsor Framework.

It’s over simplistic for critics to solely attack pesky EU laws as the reason for this judgment, as that ignores the fact numerous articles of the legislation were found to be in violation of the ECHR. Rights which were voted into UK law in the form of the Human Rights Act via the Westminster Parliament in 1998 - not the EU.

Kevin Hanratty, director of the Human Rights Consortium, an alliance of civil society organisations who seek develop a human-rights based society in Northern Ireland
Kevin Hanratty, director of the Human Rights Consortium

Various elements of the law were also, thankfully, found to be in violation of Article 2 and as a result were disapplied.

The reason the ‘non-diminution of rights’ commitment contained in Article 2 of the Windsor Framework is so important is because it protects a range of human rights standards that we enjoyed as part of our previous membership of the EU.

As those rights had underpinned the operations of Stormont and the peace process they were deemed essential for retention.

Up to the point of our formal exit the EU had produced much more impactful human rights protections for Northern Ireland than the Stormont Assembly. Largely due to the Assembly and Executives ongoing paralysis over any legislation with rights or equality in the title.

If the UK Government and those now railing against this week’s judgment were really serious about having UK wide policies or not wanting EU law to apply in Northern Ireland, then they should be leading the charge in advocating for rights protections in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK that go well beyond what the EU previously provided.

Instead we see the opposite, with fundamental attacks on basic civil liberties and human rights becoming a daily norm for this UK Government. Including the blocking of our own Northern Ireland Bill of Rights.

That’s why the Article 2 protections were so vital in the first place and why they need protected now. If this Government wants a UK wide migration and asylum policy then it should abandon its draconian Migration Act and Rwanda Act and introduce one that is human rights compliant. People across the UK would rejoice.

People in Northern Ireland (and that includes anyone who come here as a refugee or asylum seeker) need the security of basic human rights to defend them from poor decision making.

It doesn’t matter where those laws originate – just that they protect us. So stop focussing on EU law and start focussing on the scandal that the Illegal Migration Act ever saw the light of day in the first place. We demand and deserve much better.