The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland (ECNI) and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) Thursday released a joint report clarifying the extent of equality and human rights protected under the Ireland-Northern Ireland Protocol. The report comes as a legal challenge to the Protocol has reached the UK Supreme Court.
The Ireland-Northern Ireland Protocol was negotiated between the UK government and the European Union with the intention of ensuring the continuance of free trade across the Irish border as the UK left the EU. Article 2 provides that the UK government will preserve the rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity provisions secured by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
The joint report considers that all EU laws connected to an ECHR right in force in Northern Ireland on or before 31 December 2020, as well as the rights listed under the “Rights, Safeguards and Equality of Opportunity” chapter of the Good Friday Agreement, fall within scope of commitment in Article 2. The ECNI and NIHRC also believe that equality and human rights law in the North must keep pace with changes to equality and human rights law in the Republic of Ireland. Notably, they argue that rights under Protocol Article 2 must, as a minimum, be interpreted and applied in line with the body of CJEU decisions, and local courts must give due regard to any subsequent CJEU decisions of relevance to Article 2.
NIHRC Chief Commissioner Alyson Kilpatrick said the groups “will continue to work together to ensure the protection of human rights and equality. We will, as prescribed by statute, be steadfast in holding the UK Government to account for compliance with their commitment.”
Legal experts are concerned that the UK government’s most recent Northern Ireland Protocol Bill clashes with Article 2 of Ireland-Northern Ireland Protocol. Critics claim that when the Bill comes into effect, local courts will no longer be obliged to have regard to previous rulings of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), and UK Ministers will have extensive powers to change the Protocol.