Human rights academic says pro-Brexit vote driven by ‘hatred of the other’

There will be a hard Brexit because there is ‘no functioning British government’

There will be a hard Brexit for reasons including there is “no functioning British government” and the DUP’s hold over that government, a leading human rights academic has predicted.

The pro-Brexit vote was driven by "hatred of the other", and while no one knew exactly what the British government's push for Brexit involved it "definitely involves the rejection of human rights", said Prof Conor Gearty.

He believed the British push for Brexit was “heading catastrophically over a cliff”, and there would be a hard Brexit for reasons including the British government had no view on it and its lack of understanding of the concessions required.

The “one thing that would work”, a single customs union on the island of Ireland, would not happen because the DUP controlled that part of the Brexit negotiations and would oppose it like “some form of Jonestown cult” killing themselves.


Prof Gearty, professor of human rights law at the London School of Economics, was speaking at the annual Sheehy Skeffington Human Rights School in Dublin which focussed on the human rights of migrants.

Prof Gearty said the elections of US president Donald Trump and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán marked a shift in public discourse towards the open expression, by "mainly white men", of essentially racist views.

Vulgarisation of politics

Mr Trump had an “obsessive desire to punish the migrant” and his enduring legacy would be a “vulgarisation of politics” which would be “hard to eradicate”.

Hatred of the other had also driven the Brexit situation, and the pro-Brexit vote got through mainly in areas without migrants because fear of migrants was exploited.

Prof Gearty also said Israel was an example of a cultural model of human rights, an approach allowing states say they were in favour of human rights while not signing up to human rights treaties.

Mass detention and sometimes torture was also justified in the US on the basis of a commitment to human rights and a “crusade” against the other, as evident from Mr Trump’s attacks on Iran and Cuba for human rights breaches while defending Saudi Arabia.

The legal model of human rights was not about “vague cultural norms”, and involved a commitment to texts which, when enforced, make a difference.

He believed in the importance of human rights law and an independent judiciary, and the courts were increasingly, “although not always”, defending cultures against the “worst excesses of populism”.


Human rights were “what we make them”, and succeed “if our society is healthy”. Rights were about entitlement, not compassion, human rights activism should feed into law, and law should be about mature political engagement not populism. The challenge was to cut out the cultural model and move from activism to law, and he believed that was possible.

There was a “fantastic opportunity” now for Europe to emerge as custodians of human rights and it “behoves us all to be European cosmopolitans”. While Europe could be criticised, people should “be careful before we join the right in trying to destroy it”.

Edel McGinley, director of Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, said the current conversation about migration was “dishonest” in failing to acknowledge the benefits of migration and that, for reasons including falling populations across Europe, more and not less migration was needed.

Prof Siobhan Mullally, director of the Irish Centre of Human Rights at NUIG, said the migrant "crisis" in Europe should be more properly understood as "a crisis of protection and policy".

The core protections provided to refugees and migrants by European and international law have come under threat, and, faced with the forced displacement of almost five million Syrian refugees, the focus of responses had continued to be on “deterrence, deflection and return”.


There was still no comprehensive resettlement response to the humanitarian crisis triggered by millions of people forcibly displaced by conflict, systemic violations of human rights and poverty.

She said the EU’s Common European Asylum System and uneven sharing of responsibility for protection among member states, and divergence in the protection afforded to refugees and asylum seekers, including children, have yet to be addressed.

Lucky Khambule of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland said there was an alternative to direct provision such as establishing a process where asylum seekers applications were screened within a month, after which they would have, as they do in Italy, the right to work and to seek employment.

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan

Mary Carolan is the Legal Affairs Correspondent of the Irish Times