A British Post-Brexit War on Human Rights


Peter Kissel
www.irishecho.com / Irish Echo / FEBRUARY 17 – 23, 2021

North Secretary of State Brandon Lewis

North Secretary of State Brandon Lewis

On January 21, 2021, thirty-five hundred relatives of conflict victims in the North of Ireland sent a letter to Taoiseach Micheal Martin and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson urgently requesting immediate implementation of the legacy commitments of the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.

Their plea serves as a painful reminder that the UK has repeatedly refused to honor its commitments under the SHA for over six years, during which records, memories, and lives, have faded further into the past.

The urgency of the victims’ letter at this time also signals a new sense of urgency for Irish Americans to use all of our resources to resist and defeat British abuse of Ireland and its people by bringing Irish unity across the finish line. Since its departure from the European Union on January 31 last year, the UK has been determined to eviscerate human rights, and has further accelerated its shameful agenda since the EUUK Trade Agreement became effective on January 1, 2021.

Three years ago, I wrote in these pages that Brexit posed a grave threat to human rights in the North of Ireland (“Brexit threatens human rights in the North of Ireland,” Irish Echo, March 14-20, 2018). Since then, no longer constrained by EU requirements, or diplomacy, or decency, the UK has doubled down on its historic propensity to trample on human rights.

Among the specific targets now in the UK’s sights are the Human Rights Act, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, legacy investigations, amnesty for British army members allegedly guilty of murder, criminal impunity for British security forces, and employment rights.

On January 14, 2021, the UK announced the launch of a review of the Human Rights Act. A “Call for Evidence” postulates that because the HRA has been in force for twenty years the time is ripe to review its operation.

No substantive reason is given for why the HRA needs to be reviewed, but the questionable intent of the review is exposed by the statement that “There is a perception that, under the HRA, courts have increasingly been presented with questions of ‘policy’ as well as law.”

Disdaining transparency, the Call for Evidence gives no indication as to how the reviewing body was established, who its members are, how they were selected, or the intended purpose of the review.

We’ve seen this type of deceit before. Mark Thompson of Relatives for Justice recently reminded a webinar of Irish Americans that the UK engaged in a similar ploy in May 2018 when it issued a “Consultation Paper” addressing the legacy of the past under the SHA.

17,000 submissions were made calling for full implementation of the SHA, but the concerns expressed by the plethora of commenters were all but ignored. Instead, the UK used the “Consultation” process as an excuse to launch a unilateral attack on the legacy provisions of the SHA in March 2020, and as discussed below.

Separately, on September 1, 2020, Northern Ireland Secretary of State Brandon Lewis appointed six new commissioners to the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. Three of the new appointments have served
with either the RUC or the PSNI. According to the Committee for the Administration of Justice, none have a background in human rights advocacy.

Of the seven commissioners, five are men and only two are women, even though half of the applicants were female. Concerned with the new appointments, a broad coalition of human rights groups and trade unions filed a formal complaint with the Northern Ireland Office on January 11, 2021.

On March 18, 2020, less than two months after the UK departed the EU, Secretary of State Lewis announced that the UK would establish a new independent body to conduct “swift, final examinations of all the unresolved deaths.” Only “new compelling evidence” will warrant an investigation, and mere consideration of a case will act as a legal bar to any future investigation. This brazen unilateral action, premised falsely on the 2018 SHA Consultation Paper, signaled the UK’s utter disdain for the SHA, which provides for the establishment of an independent Historical Investigations Unit, promises that the process will be “victim-centered,” and envisions joint oversight with the Irish government.

Secretary Lewis’ promise to conduct “swift” examinations, after delaying them for decades, poured salt in the deep wounds of victims like the Ballymurphy families, the Loughinisland families, and others who have been rebuffed for years in campaigning for timely investigations. The Irish government, which was not consulted or even notified in advance, was stunned by the announcement.

On November 30, 2020, Secretary Lewis announced that the UK would not conduct a public inquiry into the state-assisted murder of human rights lawyer Patrick Finucane, furthering its long, sordid, history of abuse of the Finucane family. Adding insult to injury, Secretary Lewis suggested the Finucane family work with the local police to obtain the truth. Pat’s widow Geraldine Finucane stated that “the British Government have not only set themselves against my family but also the Irish government, local, national and international political parties, political institutions, legal and human rights groups domestically and internationally.”

Secretary Lewis’ March 18 announcement unilaterally trashing the SHA’s legacy provisions was made simultaneously with parliament’s introduction of the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which effectively sets a five-year limit on the prosecution of British soldiers for war crimes committed overseas. The bill establishes virtually insurmountable legal hurdles for such cases, including that they be based on “new compelling evidence.” Upon introduction of the bill, Secretary Lewis made clear that the intent was to “ensure equal treatment of Northern Ireland veterans and those who served overseas.” The Overseas Operations Bill passed the House of Commons and had its second reading in the House of Lords on January 20.

Also contemporaneous with Secretary Lewis’ announcement and the Overseas Operations Bill, parliament introduced the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill, which will allow MI5, police forces, and a range of other British public agents, to commit heinous criminal offenses, including murder and torture, with impunity. Grainne Teggart, Amnesty’s Northern Ireland campaign manager, said: “There is a grave danger that this bill could end up providing informers and agents with a licence to kill.” The bill passed its third reading in the House of Lords on January 21 and is now in conference.

The day after the Human Rights Act review was announced, the Financial Times, on January 15, 2021, reported that the UK is also preparing to scrap a litany of workers’ rights. Under consideration is abandonment of the EU Working Time Directive, which would end the 48-hour maximum work week, curtail rest breaks, exclude overtime pay for holiday work, and eliminate the requirement that businesses keep records of working hours. Boris Johnson, in response to reports that the reforms will be minor, reassured Brexiteers that “All that’s really saying is the UK won’t immediately send children up chimneys.”

In light of all these actions to eradicate a wide spectrum of rights in the North of Ireland, it is astounding for British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to claim that Britain is prepared “to sanction the perpetrators of the worst human rights abuses around the world.” (Washington Post, Dec. 29). The UK should start with itself. The fact that Raab was given prominent space to peddle his perfidy in the U.S. capital’s most widely read and respected newspaper underscores the critical nature of Irish America’s role in exposing British malfeasance, lies, and human rights outrages.

Brexit has, as many feared, opened the door for the UK to unleash a torrent of vicious actions targeting the people of the North of Ireland and the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and the Stormont House Agreement. Even as Brexit has moved the goalposts of Irish unity closer, Theresa May’s “precious union” is showing a dangerous death kick targeting universally recognized human rights.

Irish Americans are called upon more than ever to work fervently with our friends in Congress and the Biden Administration to stop the further erosion of human rights in Ireland in the runup to unification.

Peter Kissel is president of the Irish American Unity Conference.
North Secretary of State Brandon Lewis.


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