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The government’s threat to leave the ECHR to fulfil its Rwanda policy risks breaking the Good Friday Agreement

5 min read

What a difference a day makes. In less than 24 hours Boris Johnson has gone from pretending to be a defender of the Good Friday Agreement, to threatening to remove the legal underpinnings of peace in Northern Ireland altogether.

Yesterday saw the Prime Minister and his ministers drop heavy hints that if the law were to get in the way of their Rwanda deportation flights, the government could withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.

The problem?

The Good Friday Agreement, which Boris Johnson claims to be protecting in the lawbreaking rewriting of his own Brexit deal, expressly requires the United Kingdom to have the Convention be directly enforceable in Northern Ireland.

In short: the government is threatening to leave the ECHR in order to fulfil its Rwanda policy – but the UK cannot leave the ECHR without breaking the Good Friday Agreement. They are mutually exclusive.

That has not stopped possibly the most improbable member of the government payroll, Jonathan Gullis MP, from weighing in and calling for the UK to leave the ECHR in a now deleted Facebook post. You might think that his position as PPS to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would give him a better insight into the danger of his words – and some humility. That is not how this government operates.

The rule of law is a dangerous thing to trifle with, particularly when it underwrites a hard-won peace in our country

Boris Johnson is famous for his “cake-ism” – his belief in trying to have it both ways, in refusing to accept blatant impossibilities in his policies. It has made him an entertaining fictional character, a tenacious politician – and a terrible, destructive, corrosive leader of this country.

His latest contradiction, however, really does take the cake.

The European Convention on Human Rights has long been in the firing line for the sort of hard-right Conservative who thinks that Winston Churchill was a bleeding-heart lefty liberal. They have never succeeded in their quest, because even our most draconian leaders of the past have recognised that the rule of law is a dangerous thing to trifle with, particularly when it underwrites a hard-won peace in our country.

Which raises the question – why is Boris Johnson now caught between two contradictory lawbreaking proposals at once?

The easy answer is that Boris Johnson is consistent in his inconsistency, and far more focused on picking fights than following through with them. He has no real intention of withdrawing from the ECHR, just as he doesn’t really want the morally bankrupt Rwanda policy – or its flights – to get off the ground. It is all about the press release, the photo opportunity, the front-page splash – and forget about the outcome.

That may indeed be the truth of the matter. This is a government with a goldfish-like attention span and a tenuous grasp on reality at the best of times.

Even if we assume that the government do not really care about delivering their ridiculous, immoral and self-contradictory policies, however, their intentional erosion of respect for the rule of law has real-world consequences.

After all, if the UK says that international law can go hang, why would Russia or China or any other country not use the exact same excuses to yet more destructive ends?

If UK ministers attack “lefty lawyers” and suggest that due process is a liberal conspiracy against the state, how could we complain when authoritarian regimes the world over do the same?

Threats to throw out swathes of international law, whether the European Convention on Human Rights, the Northern Ireland Protocol, or anything else, undermine the very basic concept of shared legal obligations that our society is based upon.

Cooperation and trust – on a personal, national or international level – rely upon the idea that we can be bound by our past commitments. They rely on the idea that there is some framework for our actions beyond simply whatever we can get away with in any five-minute span.

It was careful cooperation that secured the landmark European Convention on Human Rights after the Second World War – led by UK lawyers. It was the patient building of trust that crafted the Good Friday Agreement, securing precious peace in Northern Ireland – underpinned by that self-same ECHR. Cooperation and trust are hard won – and require our care and respect.

Boris Johnson, our lawbreaker and charlatan-in-chief, has clearly never seen himself as being bound by commitments, personal or professional. Just ask – well, ask almost anyone. He flips loyalties, identities and principles more often than most of us change socks – without any attempt to make them match.

That is why his brief tenure has done such damage to our country, and why he must go before much longer. Whatever your views on the Rwanda plan, and whatever your views on the Northern Ireland Protocol, a government that has lost sight of basic reason – the consistency of one fact with another – is not one that can be trusted with the reins of power.

Those who do not respect the rule of law should not be lawmakers. It is, after all, a contradiction in terms.


Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland.

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