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Opinion: Is Britain on the path to becoming a rogue state?

The UK government this week told the Commons that it would be breaking international law in relation to Brexit in ‘a limited and specific way’. Rights campaigner Emma DeSouza says she’s seen this before.

Emma DeSouza

HISTORICALLY, RIGHT-WING populist governments have been known to go to great lengths to conceal any contempt they may harbour for the rule of law – while gradually and quietly undermining it through domestic policy.

Their true intentions are often only revealed once those policies and political agendas are sufficiently ingrained into society.

That, however, is decidedly not the case with the British government this week, when Brandon Lewis, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, confirmed in the Commons that the proposed legislation under the Internal Market Bill would “break international law in a limited and specific way.”

Boris Johnson’s government chose to openly and proudly declare their ambitions to breach international law while in the process of negotiating international trade agreements. His government’s actions are culminating in what is – at best – an incredible act of political self-harm, or – at worst – the first steps toward becoming a rogue state.

It would seem that the UK government, in a bid to place British sovereignty above all else, have prioritised self-interest above that of its own citizens and its international obligations.

The day after Lewis’ remarks, when asked if he was content with breaking international law, Health Secretary Matt Hancock responded in the affirmative, purporting that the government was doing so “to protect the peace process”, referring specifically to the Good Friday Agreement – itself another international agreement. The term “doublethink” came to mind.

We are not pawns

In George Orwell’s foretelling masterpiece, 1984, doublethink was used as part of a large-scale campaign of propaganda and psychological manipulation of the public. The term is defined as the ability to hold two completely contradictory beliefs at the same time and to believe they are both true.

But accusing the British government of doublethink may be a bit too generous considering their habitually duplicitous practices, particularly around Brexit.

When Hancock followed up his audacious claims by stating “I choose peace” in Northern Ireland as reasoning for breaking international law, the very fact that our hard-fought peace is inherently grounded in the foundation of international law seems to have been lost on him.

From the perspective of an Irish citizen in the North, the use of that precious peace as an excuse to break from international norms is alarming and disingenuous.

The Good Friday Agreement is not a bargaining chip, it’s an internationally championed peace accord that brought hope to a region at a time when peace seemed impossible. The agreement was overwhelmingly endorsed by the people of the island of Ireland, North and South. Brexit, by contrast, was not. 

We’ve been here before

Unsurprisingly, openly declaring an intention to beach international law by undermining the very agreement the UK negotiated and signed has resulted in spectacular political fallout.

Brussels is now warning that it may trigger sanctions if the British government does not abandon its plans by the end of the month.

The European Commission considers the unilateral move to be illegal and does not accept the argument “that the aim of the draft [internal market] bill is to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. In fact, it is of the view that it does the opposite.”

This attempt by the Tory party to appoint themselves as the true arbiters of the Good Friday Agreement is particularly galling considering the UK’s continued failure to give full domestic effect to integral provisions of the agreement.

There are themes this week that are reflected in my own case, where many of the rights-based provisions remain either misimplemented or unimplemented entirely.

I was born in Derry and won a case against the UK Home Office in 2017 after it had deemed that I was British when my US-born husband Jake applied for a residence card. I had identified as Irish, the only identity and citizenship that I have ever held.

The Good Friday Agreement recognises the rights of citizens in Northern Ireland to identify as Irish, or British, or both but the Home Office had argued against this and refused our application, saying I was British. Thus began a long, protracted and I believe, unnecessary legal battle.

I eventually withdrew my case after a significant concession from the Home Office that placed the GFA definition of a person of Northern Ireland into UK law for the first time and finally, accepted me as Irish.

The position the British government clung to throughout has highlighted serious shortcomings in their adherence to the Good Friday Agreement – and therefore their ability to be entrusted with upholding all commitments which they’ve signed in any accord they’re a party to – past, present, or future.

The majority of political parties in the north and south contended that their stance disregarded the Good Friday Agreement, but Britain nonetheless pursued the case for nearly half a decade. 

They must be held to account

They conceded the case to us only when they were under political pressure and their fear of losing in the higher courts posed too great a risk.

There are clear parallels between the government’s argument in our case and those put forward by the Attorney General, Suella Braverman in relation to this plan to overwrite parts of the Northern Ireland protocol.

cabinet-meeting Attorney General Suella Braverman returns to 10 Downing Street on Tuesday September 8, 2020. Source: Empics Entertainment

Both defences concern themselves with the supremacy of parliament and cite the recent case of Gina Miller – who challenged the UK in the courts over various technical moves in relation to Brexit – as justification for breaching the UK’s obligations under international treaties. Neither holds up logically or legally.

Had our case proceeded to the Court of Appeal the argument that the government is using would have been tested and could well have been struck down.

brexit Sept 2019 - Gina Miller speaks to the media outside the Supreme Court in London, where judges ruled that Boris Johnson's advice to the Queen to suspend Parliament for five weeks was unlawful. Source: PA

Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt cited our case as “a reason for the absolute need for safeguards”, and whilst the unjust corruption highlighted by our case differs subtly from the recently addressed illegality of the UK’s current position, it was – for many – a harbinger of dangers looming on the horizon.

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Ignoring the law

When our case began, the British government had two choices: amend domestic UK legislation in accordance with its obligations under international law, or repudiate them. Choosing the latter, the British government opted instead to try and rewrite their obligations unilaterally in lieu of implementing the provisions into law.

The difference between our case and the scandal surrounding the withdrawal agreement is that we were dealing with an unincorporated provision of a treaty, whereas the withdrawal agreement has been incorporated into domestic UK law.

Nevertheless, the government’s principal motive in both instances is the same: a bid to assert British sovereignty above all else, including signed treaties and international obligations.

There are many parliamentarians aghast at the British government’s proposal to breach international standards, after all – how could the UK reproach any other country for failing to adhere to standards it proudly breaks?

Populism doesn’t take hold overnight, it’s a drawn-out, incremental transition that insidiously spreads within society under the shadow of fear and patriotism. It’s populism which has gripped the UK, fuelled by English nationalism and a longing for the good ol’ colonial days.

The irony here is that far from becoming more global, the UK is becoming increasingly more insular. The fallout from the UK’s attack on the rule of law is set to continue with Michael Gove rejecting the EU’s calls for the UK to withdraw the legislation, and Irish American leaders warning that any undermining of the Good Friday Agreement will have serious consequences in future trade talks.

One has to wonder- what does the British government believe they stand to gain from continuously pursuing such a reckless path? It’s hard to see how any Brexit deal can be reached when one side simply can’t be trusted.

Emma DeSouza is a citizens rights campaigner for the Good Friday Agreement and is Vice-Chair & NI spokesperson for VotingRights.ie. She recently successfully challenged the Home Office to assert her right to identify as Irish.

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