The Government will express strong opposition to any moves by the next British government to repeal the Human Rights Act in the North, according to official sources.
Repeal of the Act, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, was pledged by Leave campaigners during the Brexit referendum.
However, the Conservative government had been promising to repeal the Act even before the referendum.
In April, home secretary Theresa May said the UK should withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), regardless of the decision in the referendum.
Mrs May is now the leading contender to become Conservative leader and the next prime minister.
The ECHR, she said, “can bind the hands of parliament, adds nothing to our prosperity, makes us less secure by preventing the deportation of dangerous foreign nationals, and does nothing to change the attitudes of governments like Russia’s when it comes to human rights”.
Government sources speak approvingly of Mrs May as the best option among the Tory leadership contenders. Still, such talk clearly alarms the Irish Government. The Belfast Agreement explicitly commits Westminster to incorporate the ECHR into Northern Ireland law.
Last year, Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald wrote to her British counterpart, Michael Gove, following statements from Mr Gove about repealing the Human Rights Act.
In a strongly worded letter, Ms Fitzgerald requested that the British government take account of the Belfast Agreement and of the Government’s view in advance of any public consultation about repealing the Act insofar as it applied to Northern Ireland.
Ms Fitzgerald reminded Mr Gove that the Belfast Agreement required the incorporation of the ECHR into Northern Ireland law.
She also said that “while a domestic Bill of rights could complement incorporation, it could not replace it”.
In other words, the Government was telling its British counterparts that repealing the Human Rights Act in Northern Ireland would be a breach of the agreement.
The human rights framework of the ECHR, with external supervision by the European Court of Human Rights, had been essential to the peace process, Ms Fitzgerald wrote.
A senior official source said yesterday that if the next British government proceeded to seek to repeal the Human Rights Act, “the Irish Government would have a very strong view about that”.
Privately, Government sources are not unhappy that Mrs May has emerged as the frontrunner in the Conservative party. “Of all the available options, she’s not the worst,” said one.
Irish politicians have dealt with the home secretary in relation to security co-operation matters in the past. “We know her, she’s been over the ground, she gets it,” said one source.
Mrs May suggested during the referendum campaign that some changes in the Border would be “inevitable” if Britain left the EU.
Campaigning for a Remain vote in the North, she acknowledged that the Common Travel Area predated the EU, but said that a UK pull-out would lead to tariffs.
Last week, Mrs May was endorsed by a huge majority of Tory MPs as the Conservative leadership race was whittled down to the final two contenders. She will now face Andrea Leadsom in a run-off.