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Human rights go to the heart of the matter

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement has always been the central influence on the enormously positive changes which have transformed our society in recent years, and any suggestion that one of its key elements may be removed could only be regarded with grave concern.

Alarm has been growing over the announcement by the incoming Conservative government in London that it intends to scrap the Human Rights Act, which was also passed in 1998, a prospect which plainly has major implications across many sectors in Northern Ireland.

The Act had the effect of extending the protections listed in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into domestic UK law, and fears have been expressed by a range of political parties on both sides of the border that repealing it would breach the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

Similar views have also been voiced by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) and the Belfast-based Committee on the Administration of Justice about a proposal which raises profound issues in terms of both policing and justice.

The chief commissioner of the NIHRC, Les Allaby said he had `repeatedly advised against a move which can only serve to undermine a foundation stone of the Northern Ireland peace process, reduce hard won protections for everyone living in the UK, and damage the state's international reputation.'

Charlie Flanagan, the Irish minister for foreign affairs, made a firm intervention yesterday, insisting that the fundamental role of human rights in guaranteeing peace and stability in Northern Ireland must be fully respected.

Mr Flanagan pointed out that the British government had yet to publish its legislative programme for the coming parliamentary term, but he will be well aware that dropping the Human Rights Act was a Conservative election manifesto pledge.

It will also be noted that the DUP, which campaigned against the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, is a strong critic of the Human Rights Act which it claims has been `abused by criminals and terrorists.'

Mr Flanagan is due to meet with the newly re-appointed secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, when he is expected to stress the importance which the Irish government places on human rights issues.

The onus will then be on Ms Villiers to set out her own position in considerable detail on a development which has the potential to further destabilise our devolved structures at a time when they are already facing an extremely uncertain future.

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