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Pragmatic one day, dogmatic next: will real Theresa May please stand up?

She was a realist over the National Crime Agency logjam, but her threat to dump Human Rights Act makes me doubt PM's judgment, writes Alban Maginness

Published 20/07/2016

Under fire: Theresa May
Under fire: Theresa May

I have both been impressed and unimpressed by Theresa May, the new Prime Minister. On the one hand I was impressed by the direct and businesslike way in which she, as Home Secretary, dealt with the SDLP's concerns over the National Crime Agency in 2015.

After months of delay and unsuccessful discussions over a number of issues relating to the accountability of the NCA to the Policing Board and the role of the Chief Constable over the operations of the NCA, the SDLP engaged directly with her.

The meeting went well, with May accepting the SDLP's concerns about accountability to the Policing Board and giving reassurance that those concerns would be met in subsequent legislation.

The discussion was conducted on a businesslike and friendly basis. She was very aware of the issues and was clearly well-briefed.

What struck me about her was that she was sensitive to the issues raised by the SDLP and was in the business of getting those issues finally resolved, thereby making the NCA fully operational in Northern Ireland.

Her pragmatic approach was refreshing and, ultimately, it was successful.

On the other hand I have been seriously unimpressed by her proposal during the Brexit campaign that the UK leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

It disturbed and shocked me.

Frankly, I think it was an absurd and damaging proposal, poorly considered and politically embarrassing. This was in stark contrast to the pragmatic and reasonable Theresa May of the NCA discussions.

The reason why leaving the convention was so bad was that this would be hugely detrimental to the convention itself and to human rights in Britain and here.

The convention was drafted by the Council of Europe, which was established by Churchill and other Western leaders just after the Second World War in order to prevent a repetition of the ghastly atrocities of the Nazis and their allies.

The convention is, of course, quite separate from the European Union, as indeed is the European Court of Human Rights.

By creating the convention and the European Court to enforce its provisions and to protect citizens from human rights violations throughout Europe, they believed a culture of human rights would develop to challenge the awfulness of the past and to prevent the recurrence of such violations in the future.

At the moment there are 47 countries signed up to the convention and the Council of Europe.

If the UK was to leave the convention it would be joining the outcast totalitarian regimes of Belarus and Kazakhstan - a most unenviable position for the UK and an encouragement for other states such as Russia to also leave and thereby undermine the cause of human rights in Europe and the world at large.

To do so would make Britain an international laughing-stock.

May's support for such a ludicrous proposal makes me question the soundness of her political judgment.

Thankfully, she has now abandoned this dangerous proposal, but she is still committed to the damaging proposal of scrapping the Westminster Human Rights Act 1998, which applies to our own law in Northern Ireland.

The Act's very existence has sometimes been used as an excuse not to introduce our own Bill of Rights, which is an outstanding commitment under the Good Friday Agreement.

Successive British Governments have disappointingly failed to fulfil their solemn commitment to enact a local Bill of Rights, based on the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission's template, drafted under the distinguished chairmanship of Professor Monica McWilliams.

It should also be remembered that this is an internationally binding commitment, as the Good Friday Agreement is also an international treaty between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

Therefore, not to fulfil this obligation is a serious breach of an international agreement.

While the Human Rights Act remains in place there is at least the semblance of an excuse that there is, therefore, no need to introduce a bespoke local Bill of Rights.

However, if Prime Minister May repeals the 1998 Act that excuse falls and, in those circumstances Mrs May will have to address the continued absence of a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights.

Therefore, if she repeals the Human Rights Act in Britain she will be obliged to introduce a Bill of Rights for this jurisdiction.

An absurd position for her, but one brought about by her own making.

If she does not do that, then she will be clearly in breach of the Good Friday Agreement.

Such a breach will be potentially destabilising for our politics.

Similar to her proposal to leave the European Convention, she has clearly not thought this through.

Now my question is: who is the real Theresa May?

Is she is the problem-solving, pragmatic Home Secretary that successfully addressed the problems relating to the NCA?

Or is she really the quixotic opponent of the European Convention and the Human Rights Act?

Belfast Telegraph

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