During the violent 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland, thousands of people lost their lives and many more were injured. The Human Rights Act helped to heal some of those wounds and plays a vital part in keeping the peace today.
The road to peace
In 1998, after thirty years of bitter conflict in Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement was signed – a huge step in establishing peace. The Human Rights Act is key to the peace deal. The Agreement states that the UK must bring the European Convention of Human Rights into Northern Irish law, which is exactly what the Human Rights Act does. When the Good Friday Agreement was written, it had human rights at its very core.
Throughout Northern Ireland’s troubled history, there has been much distrust in political institutions and the police. But the Human Rights Act helped transform public confidence in the government and police, because public institutions could now be held accountable for their actions.
It put power back into the hands of ordinary people.
“The Human Rights Act means there is a route for Troubles victims to make sure that the government investigates their cases. If the Human Rights Act wasn’t there, I don’t know how justice would be served.” – Alan McBride, who lost his wife Sharon in an IRA bombing in Belfast in 1993
No going back
After eighteen years of peace, the UK government is now threatening to remove one of the cornerstones of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Human Rights Act was a building block of stability in very troubled times. The immediate threat of violence has diminished, but tensions still exist today. Much of Belfast is still divided into loyalist and nationalist communities marked by so-called ‘peace walls’.
Professor Monica McWilliams was at the table when the Good Friday Agreement was made in 1998. She says that back then, she would never have imagined that the Human Rights Act would be in jeopardy at any stage.
“I am shocked to the core that the UK government doesn’t understand the importance of the Human Rights Act in Northern Ireland. I’m appalled that they would interfere with it after 30 years of bitter conflict. There’s every possibility that we could go very far back again if it’s removed.” – Professor Monica McWilliams, former NI Assembly member and Chief of the NI Human Rights Commission
The Irish government has also warned the UK that repeal of the Human Rights Act in Northern Ireland would be a breach of the Agreement and could have serious implications for stability in the region.
Charlie Flanagan, the Irish foreign minister has said that the Human Rights Act “is woven into the structure” of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement between the UK and Irish governments and the parties in Northern Ireland. “The shared emphasis on human rights is part of what makes the peace process credible.”
The UK government must not risk dismantling eighteen years of peace.