Brian Feeney: Cornered Sunak has no Plan B after Rwanda debacle

Brian Feeney

Brian Feeney

Historian and political commentator Brian Feeney has been a columnist with The Irish News for three decades. He is a former SDLP councillor in Belfast and co-author of the award-winning book Lost Lives

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak knows that no asylum seekers will be sent to Rwanda before the general election
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak knows that no asylum seekers will be sent to Rwanda before the general election

IN July 1966 The Observer newspaper warned the British prime minister Harold Wilson, whom the paper supported at the time, about his plan for a pay freeze to curb inflation.

The editorial said: “The pedigree of the government’s policy is suspect: it is by haste out of desperation. And it has been introduced in the most unfavourable circumstances imaginable: in an atmosphere of confusion and bitterness.”

All that applies equally to Prime Minister Sunak’s Rwanda plan. What a pity he has no supporting newspapers to give him similar warning about his misconceived Illegal Migration Act (IMA).

Instead, the Conservative cheer-leading tabloids have pushed Sunak into ever more posturing, blustering statements, like threatening “to take on anyone, Labour or the Lords”, who opposes his ‘small boats policy’. He has also implied he might disapply or derogate from parts of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR).

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All of that is (deliberately?) misdirected. The Supreme Court craftily based its judgment on a wide range of international treaties and evidence supplied by the United Nations nothing to do with the ECHR. The UK would be breaking those international laws and conventions as well as the ECHR.

Sunak’s reaction is nonsensical, a pathetic pandering to the head bangers and culture warriors on his party’s far right exemplified by the deputy chair Lee Anderson who advised Sunak to just start flying planes to Rwanda in defiance of the Supreme Court.

Of course we have skin in the game because the rights and safeguards embodied in the Good Friday Agreement are enshrined in the ECHR. The GFA repeatedly mentions ‘proofing legislation to ensure it does not infringe the ECHR’, but most importantly, incorporates the ECHR into law here with ‘direct access to the courts and remedies for breaches of the Convention’.

These provisions are included in the 1998 Northern Ireland Act. Not that any of that would bother Sunak since there’s no evidence he gives tuppence about this place. He’s allowed the GFA to twist in the wind since he became prime minster and kept on the two inept, ineffectual amigos Liz Truss sent here.

Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak
Former Home Secretary Suella Braverman with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak

Not to worry though. Sunak won’t pull out of the ECHR despite his bluster. It’s not because he’d damage the GFA. It’s because the EU would immediately strike him a hammer blow.

Under the disastrous Trade & Cooperation Agreement (TCA) Johnson and Frost struck in 2020, the EU has the right to take retaliatory action if the UK pulls out of the ECHR or formally denounces its principles. That could mean immediate termination of the TCA, which would be just wonderful for UK business, eh?

Short of termination, leaving the ECHR would mean ending police and security agreements on extradition and access to the EU database of biometric data including fingerprints and DNA.

Article 524 of the TCA states it is based on both the UK and EU’s “long-standing respect for democracy, the rule of law and the protection of fundamental rights” including those in the ECHR. Bang goes Sunak’s carefully cultivated reset with the EU.

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  • Brian Feeney: The British government, legacy and legalising lawlessness

Now here’s the thing. The (IMA) Suella Braverman pushed through is sure to be found to be illegal, but not in the way its title means. The House of Lords Justice and Home Affairs Committee wrote to Braverman earlier this year warning her that the IMA is likely to be incompatible with various international agreements and conventions including the Refugee Convention. EU law requires compliance with the Refugee Convention.

The Supreme Court’s judgment last week referred to the same agreements and conventions so there’s no doubt there will be successful legal challenges to any attempt Sunak and his hapless new Home Secretary make to get planes in the air.

Sunak knows that the party’s agent provocateur Braverman is correct. He has no Plan B and will not manage to expel any asylum seekers to Rwanda before the general election. She should know. Both she and Sunak bet the house on the Rwanda scheme which is now dead in the water.

That accounts for Sunak’s desperation and his hasty, ill-advised threats and bravado last week. It led him into the absurd and ridiculous statement – the cause of much mirth and derision in the legal profession – that he would pass a law declaring as fact that which the Supreme Court found not to be a fact, namely that Rwanda in not a safe place to send asylum seekers.

As former Supreme Court judge Lord Sumption said: “It is not unusual for governments to promote legislation to change the law after an unfavourable judgment in the courts, but I have never heard of them trying to change the facts by law. For as long as black isn’t white, the business of passing acts of parliament to say it is, is profoundly discreditable.”

So Sunak’s cornered and the ECHR will remain the bedrock of the Good Friday Agreement.