‘Tsunami of vulnerable people’ worried over impact of Brexit

Veteran activist Bernadette McAliskey says migrants in panic and fear over where they will stand post-Brexit

Brexit is causing panic and fear in Northern Ireland, particularly among immigrants trying to figure out what EU laws will apply to them, veteran human rights campaigner Bernadette McAliskey has said.

Speaking at an event in Dublin to mark the 50th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement, the former House of Commons MP said she was struggling to help “an absolute tsunami of vulnerable people” worried about Brexit through the community and migrant support group she runs in Co Tyrone.

Dungannon, where her group South Tyrone Empowerment Programme or STEP is based, has a large migrant population. Immigrants account for more than one in 10 of the town's population.

Ms McAliskey said UK immigration rules have already changed in preparation for the UK’s departure from the EU in March 2019, and that she was “caught up in the minutiae of fire-fighting” to help people deal with those changes. This was making it difficult for people to plan ahead.


“I don’t have time to breathe right at the minute because of the panic, consternation, fear and real impact that crashing out of the EU – or even a negotiated exit – is going to bring, not simply to the new population, the immigrant population, but to people whose everyday life is simply thrown up in the air.

“We are daily working with people who are trying to understand when European regulations and laws no longer work for people, and what will the legislation be to protect their everyday position.”

Reactive responses

Ms McAliskey said the current situation in Northern Ireland reminded her of the civil rights movement of the late 1960s and the 1970s, when activists tried to protect people's civil rights in a rapidly changing society.

“We ended up on a treadmill of reactive responses to the violation of rights, and we couldn’t get our heads lifted to see what was happening in the bigger picture.”

The veteran activist spoke to The Irish Times on Saturday at a seminar entitled We Shall Overcome, marking 50 years of the civil rights movement. The event was organised by a group of trade unions, including Siptu and Ictu, at Liberty Hall in Dublin.

A half-century ago the Tyrone woman held a prominent role in the student-led civil rights association that catalogued discrimination against Catholics in housing and employment, and demanded equal voting for all in local government elections. She was later elected MP for Mid Ulster in 1969 at the age of just 21.

Ms McAliskey said she believed few people understood what impact Brexit was already having. “I don’t think anybody who is not working at that coalface has the slightest idea of the chaos we are already in, and how much worse it is going to be.”

She was not optimistic that the UK would depart the EU with a negotiated divorce deal.“The rational, logical, sane answer is that there has to be some form of agreement – but this is the British government we are dealing with. This is the last delusion of a dead empire in the resurrection, so rationale and logic doesn’t really come into it.”


Michael Farrell, another veteran civil rights leader from the Northern Ireland movement of the late 1960s, told the Liberty Hall seminar that Brexit had polarised the North's population, and "threatens to remove or severely weaken mechanisms for protecting rights and equality".

“Sadly, those are the very mechanisms that can be used to protect or assert rights, like LGBTI rights, gender equality, women’s reproductive rights, workers’ rights, and the rights of migrants and asylum seekers,” said Mr Farrell, who with Ms McAliskey was involved in the People’s Democracy group.

“It is around these rights that coalitions can be built across the traditional religious and political divisions in Northern Ireland.”

Mr Farrell said it was "vital" that the UK government stood by pledges given in December 2017 to avoid a hard border in Ireland and to protect the Belfast Agreement so that there would be "no diminution of the protections of equality and human rights in Northern Ireland".

Without these protections, he warned, Northern Ireland could “slip back into ghettoisation and sectarianism or even some level of violence”.

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent