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As a Northern Ireland peace negotiator, I know just what the Illegal Migration Bill risks

A thoughtless and cruel piece of legislation could undermine the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement itself

David Trimble John Hume and singer Bono May 1998 and Tim Wheeler

John Hume, singer Bono, David Trimble and Tim Wheeler, May 1998. Image: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

I was in the room the day the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement talks concluded. There was a sense of anticipation and excitement, but also a lot of tension.

We still didn’t know whether David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, would get his party to back the agreement, as the more hardline Democratic Unionist Party had already walked out on the talks in protest at the inclusion of Sinn Féin in the negotiations. But it was not just about politics. In that room sat both the old men of the conflict, and those who had survived the violence first-hand. Yet, knowing what was at stake, the latter found the generosity of spirit to sit and talk to the perpetrators.

My party, the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition, was founded on the principles of human rights, equality and inclusion. These were principles that allowed us to craft an inter-community party of women drawn from very different, and often antagonist, traditions in Northern Ireland. We were Unionist, Nationalist and Other.

When the agreement was finally signed, we celebrated the fact that the European Convention on Human Rights was actually named in it seven times. We believed that the stated dedication to “the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all” would mean what it said – “all”.

Despite all the tension, in May 1998, voters went to the polls for the referendum on the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. The result was 71.12% for Yes, and 28.88% for No.

Fast forward to 2016 and another referendum, this time on the UK leaving the EU. Among UK voters as a whole, the result was 51.89% for Leave and 48.11% for Remain. But in Northern Ireland, the vote went the other way, with 55.78% voting to Remain and 44.22% voting Leave.

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In the 18 years between the two referenda, often overlooked by politicians and media in London, Northern Ireland had been attempting to implement an ambitious agreement that promised partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands. So much was based on the constructive ambiguity that both the UK and Ireland were within the European Union.

Then came Brexit, which demolished that constructive ambiguity once and for all. As a result, the Conservative Westminster government came up with the Northern Ireland Protocol, and subsequently under Rishi Sunak, the Windsor Framework, which attempted to square the circle of Brexit and the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.

But just as Sunak’s government found a sticking plaster, it ripped it off again. Article 2 of the Northern Ireland Protocol commits the UK to ensure no diminution of rights to everyone who is ‘subject to the law in Northern Ireland’. And then Sunak introduced the Illegal Migration Bill.

The bill – dubbed by human rights organisations as the Refugee Ban Bill – grants the Westminster government the right to amend, disapply repeal or revoke statutory provisions that currently rest with devolved governments. This not only encroaches on the powers of the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly, but it could have a devastating impact on victims of modern slavery and trafficking, as well as unaccompanied children seeking safety; two areas where Northern Ireland has quietly built up a good track record. Some fear the bill might also hold our voluntary organisations supporting asylum seekers guilty of ‘facilitation offences’.

Perhaps most importantly from a constitutional perspective, the Refugee Ban Bill might well prevent the Northern Ireland Executive complying with the international human rights obligations as set out in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, not to mention the aforementioned Article 2 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

We might not be able to agree what to call our Good Friday/Belfast Agreement depending, as they say in Northern Ireland, on what foot you kick with. But we do know what human impact on the ground is when children at school in a border town, like Derry/Londonderry are unable to travel 10 miles down the road on a school trip to the beaches in Donegal (across what is now the EU border) because of their asylum status. As a people that have come out of violent conflict, we also know the dangers of adopting a nod and a wink approach to international human rights law, and we know the importance of giving people a right to a fair hearing and legal redress. 

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That day in the negotiating room, it might have been hard to ignore the tension, but we knew we had to overcome it if we wanted to find a cross-community settlement that would put an end to 30 years of violence in which 3,720 people had died (the equivalent proportion in the UK population as a whole would be 133,000) and 47,541 were injured (the UK equivalent proportion would be 1.7 million).

This month the Refugee Ban Bill returns to Parliament. It is a carelessly cruel bit of legislation, and a transparent bid to win short-term headlines, but it also risks two decades of hard work in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is too often forgotten. I urge MPs to remember it before they vote.

Dr. Avila Kilmurray is the Migration and Peacebuilding Executive at The Social Change Initiative, a role which supports work with the Migrant Learning Exchange Programme and learning on peace building. She has worked in the community sector and philanthropy in Northern Ireland since 1975.

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