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Boris Johnson warned his threat to quit human rights treaty risks stability in Northern Ireland

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Campaigners have criticised efforts to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)

Campaigners have criticised efforts to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Campaigners have criticised efforts to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda. (Photo by Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)

Boris Johnson has been warned he risks destabilising Northern Ireland if he follows through on a threat to pull the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights in response to a court ruling which thwarted his efforts to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda on Tuesday.

After the prime minister said he may have to “change some laws” to ensure the flights go ahead, Downing Street today confirmed that ECHR withdrawal is one of a number of options under consideration.

The news was greeted with horror in Belfast and Dublin, as convention membership is a fundamental element of the Good Friday Agreement which brought an end to the Troubles in 1998.

Withdrawal would make the UK the only non-signatories in Europe other than Belarus, whose application to join the Council of Europe has been blocked over its failure to meet democratic standards, and Russia, which pulled out following the invasion of Ukraine.

The threat came as Mr Johnson’s government claimed to be acting to protect the Agreement by introducing legislation to tear up the PM’s Northern Ireland Protocol Brexit deal with the EU.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood told The Independent that any attempt to disapply the convention would be “a clear violation” of the Agreement which explicitly places an obligation on the UK government to incorporate it into law in Northern Ireland.

“You cannot on one hand use the primacy of the Good Friday Agreement to justify breaching international law in respect of the protocol while on the other breaching the Agreement in respect of the ECHR,” said Mr Eastwood.

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“The Good Friday Agreement is a peace accord rooted in internationalism and multilateral support for the democratic settlement in Ireland. Every week, Boris Johnson demonstrates how unfit he is to be its co-guarantor. He cannot be allowed to shatter elements of the peace process and our human rights framework in the pursuit of an inhumane asylum policy.”

And Alliance Party MP Stephen Farry told The Independent: “This is not even something that can be considered as an option. The ECHR is hard-wired into the Good Friday Agreement.

“The Agreement would be broken. It stands together as a package, and removing one part would fatally undermine it as a whole.

“It would create instability and uncertainty and political dysfunction. The assembly and other structures may limp on, but we would not have an Agreement, which is unacceptable, not least because of the history of Northern Ireland.”

Mr Johnson has previously promised to replace the Human Rights Act – which incorporates the ECHR into UK law – with a British Bill of Rights.

But he has so far resisted pressure from the Conservative right to pull out of the convention, which was largely created by Britain in the wake of the Second World War and commits signatories to accept the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

There were fresh attacks on the ECHR in the House of Commons today following Tuesday’s debacle, in which last-minute rulings from judges in Strasbourg, as well as England’s Appeal Court, prevented the removal of seven asylum-seekers on a £500,000 chartered jet.

Conservative MP Alexander Stafford denounced what he referred to as a “despicable ruling from the foreign European Court of Justice”, while fellow Tory Jonathan Gullis said constituents were frustrated that “foreign judges have meddled with our UK legal system”.

Mr Gullis, a parliamentary aide in the Northern Ireland Office, hastily took down a social media post in which he said the ECHR had “no place in the UK judicial system” and the government should “free itself from it entirely”, replacing it with a toned-down appeal for its role in UK law to be “looked at”.

Home secretary Priti Patel declined to comment on ECHR membership in the Commons, citing the need to avoid influencing ongoing court proceedings. But she said backbencher Sir Desmond Swayne was “tempting me” when he asked if she would like to “take back control” from the Strasbourg judges.

And Mr Johnson’s official spokesperson left no doubt that the convention was up for question when he told reporters: “We keep all options on the table as part of our work to address the issues raised by the repeated and sometimes meritless claims that we see consistently with removal flights, while obviously making sure that we continue to protect the vulnerable.”

“What we are doing is considering the judgement before coming to a decision on how best to proceed.

“Now that will both look at the role of the ECHR but also existing UK legislation and whether it is functioning as envisaged.”

Attorney general Suella Braverman later echoed his comments, telling BBC Radio 4’s World at One: ”The government has been clear... that all options are on the table. So we’re not ruling anything in and we’re not ruling anything out.

“We are definitely open to assessing all options available as to what our relationship should be going forward with the (ECHR).”

The comments came just hours after cabinet minister Therese Coffey told a radio interview she was “not aware of any decisions or hints of leaving the ECHR”.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle said: “Labour’s commitment to the Good Friday Agreement is fundamental, and the ECHR is the scaffolding which maintains the agreement.

“As these comments show, the Conservatives care more about culture wars than the Good Friday Agreement.”



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