Northern Ireland Protocol Bill threatens human rights protections


Legal experts advise that new UK government legislation scrapping parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol poses a significant threat to human rights protections, despite assurances from ministers.

The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is about to be debated in the House of Lords and faces significant opposition. Until now, however, the impact of the Bill on human rights has been largely ignored.

When the former Prime Minister Liz Truss was Foreign Secretary, she unveiled the controversial powers in the House of Commons and claimed “the bill is consistent with our obligations in international law and in support of our prior obligations in the Belfast Good Friday agreement”.

But these claims have now been rejected in a joint report produced by academics at the Human Rights Centre in Queen’s University Belfast and the Donia Human Rights Centre at the University of Michigan, introducing a new dimension likely to figure in the House of Lords consideration of the Bill.

Despite assurances from the Government that its new Bill ringfences existing human rights protections in the Protocol, the legislation empowers ministers to undermine hard won human rights protections contained in the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement and protected in the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiated with the European Union (EU).

One of the authors of the report, Professor Christopher McCrudden of Queen’s, said: “The House of Lords now has the opportunity to fix this unacceptable and reckless unpicking of the protections that the EU and the UK agreed in the Protocol to safeguard the human rights protections in the Northern Ireland peace agreement.”

Concerns about human rights and equality have been at the heart of the conflict in Northern Ireland, leading to a special section of the Good Friday Agreement which was dedicated to ‘Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity.’

There has been concern that the UK’s exit from the EU would weaken these existing human rights and equality mechanisms in Northern Ireland.

The Ireland-Northern Ireland Protocol is part of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union. It includes a commitment to preserve the Good Friday Agreement “in all its dimensions”. In particular, Article 2 of the Protocol ensures “no diminution of rights, safeguards, or equality of opportunity”.

“No diminution” means the rights people in Northern Ireland had before the UK left the EU cannot be reduced as a result of Brexit. There is also an obligation of “dynamic alignment”, requiring the UK government to keep Northern Ireland law up to date with equality obligations in EU law.

Although these protections in the Protocol are explicitly protected from some ministerial interference under the Government’s new Bill, the report found other provisions in the legislation gut many of the elements which underpin these protections in domestic law.

The report also finds that the UK government is acting contrary to international law through the introduction of the Bill, unless it can offer a justification for this breach. The attempt to ground such a justification in ‘necessity’ fails, providing no justification.

The report concludes: “There are neither political nor legal justifications for these actions. In particular, the UK Government’s claim of necessity has no legal basis in general and none in respect of Article 2.”