Rights and equality challenges of Brexit

 

Sir, – As organisations and academics working for the protection and advancement of human rights in Northern Ireland and Ireland, there is much to welcome in the draft withdrawal agreement protocol published by the European Commission last week, which translates the political agreement from December 2017 between the UK and the EU into legal form.

The recognition that the Belfast Agreement must be protected “in all its parts” and the explicit reference to the human rights and equality provisions of the agreement are significant grounding principles. The draft protocol also states that North-South cooperation and the guarantee to avoid a hard border are “overarching requirements” for any future arrangements.

At the same time, the contradictions presented by the competing objectives of the parties to the Brexit process are becoming increasingly apparent. It is now essential that guarantees achieved to date in relation to human rights and the position of Northern Ireland are clarified. Outstanding difficult issues must now be confronted and apparent contradictions resolved.

We welcome the restated commitment in the draft protocol to no diminution of rights in Northern Ireland and the explicit reference to protections against discrimination as protected by EU law, which must clearly include the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and all EU-derived legislation that currently protects human rights in Northern Ireland. We also need greater clarity about the manner of retention of those specific rights and how they will be enforced post-Brexit.

As we move into a more technical phase of the process, it is crucial that principles of human rights and equality inform all the emerging processes, standards and institutions. This applies to any newly formulated arrangements for the Common Travel Area and freedom of movement across these islands.

These principles must also apply to the economic and social rights of citizens to access services.

The stated purpose of the draft protocol is to create a “common regulatory area” of the island of Ireland. The debate has too often focused on regulations applying to goods; we need urgent clarity about what regulatory alignment means in relation to all those living on the island.

The draft protocol raises issues of respect for equal citizenship in Northern Ireland and on the island of Ireland. The draft protocol makes reference to the “rights, opportunities and identity that come with citizenship of the Union for the people of Northern Ireland who choose to assert their right to Irish citizenship”.

We believe in the equal rights of all the people of Northern Ireland, and we believe that the rights currently available to all the people of Northern Ireland as EU citizens should continue to be available to them under any new agreement. These rights should not be conditional upon a requirement to declare Irish citizenship, in line with the guarantees of equality under the Belfast Agreement.

In the context of ensuring that human rights continue to be universal in both principle and practice this may prove to be divisive and unhelpful.

It must be recalled that the protocol to the draft agreement is largely concerned with setting out the details of a “backstop” scenario – the situation that would prevail if no agreement is reached between the parties.

As a starting point, or baseline position, we must ensure that rights and equality remain at the centre of any alternative agreement that might now follow. There remains a real risk that human rights and equality will be airbrushed out of this process.

Finally, we must plan for the complicated future that lies ahead. We must take this opportunity to strengthen the protection and promotion of human rights and equality on this island.

This is the moment to renew our focus on a bill of rights for Northern Ireland and a charter of rights for the island as ways to mitigate the messy rights and equality challenges that may inevitably emerge as a direct consequence of Brexit.

We must remember that human rights were given a central place in the peace process and the Belfast Agreement of April 1998 precisely so that the all those who live in Northern Ireland and on the island of Ireland could move beyond historic divisions and build a future based on shared values. This powerful idea is even more compelling in our present circumstances. – Yours, etc,

BRIAN GORMALLY,

Director,

Committee on the

Administration of Justice;

LIAM HERRICK,

Executive Director,

Irish Council

for Civil Liberties;

EILIS BARRY,

Chief Executive,

The Free Legal

Advice Centres;

KEVIN HANRATTY,

Director,

Human Rights Consortium;

PADDY KELLY,

Director,

Children’s Law Centre;

TANYA WARD,

Director,

Children’s Rights Alliance;

MICHAEL FARRELL,

Solicitor;

Dr SUZANNE EGAN,

Assistant Professor,

Sutherland School of Law,

Director,

UCD Centre

for Human Rights;

COLIN HARVEY,

Professor of Human

Rights Law,

Queen’s University Belfast,

SHANE KILCOMMINS,

Head of School of Law,

University of Limerick;

Prof SIOBHÁN

MULLALLY,

Established Professor

of Human Rights Law

and Director of the Irish

Centre for Human Rights,

NUI Galway;

RORY O’CONNELL,

Professor of Human Rights

and Constitutional Law,

Ulster University.

Sir, – I am currently sitting on a bus travelling between Vancouver and Seattle. I have just opened my Irish Times app to read with incredulity the lead article on the UK prime minister’s suggestion of a suitable model for the Ireland/Northern Ireland border post-Brexit. I have just crossed that border 10 minutes ago.

We approached the Canada/US frontier – passing several hundred cars waiting patiently to cross. We all had to disembark from the bus (when we were finally called forward), take all our baggage off and queue up to have it X-rayed. We had to fill out a customs declaration and be questioned, photographed and fingerprinted. We had to pay a $6 fee each and then return to the bus. The process took about 50 minutes. The US border officials were professional and courteous and were working as efficiently as the system allowed.

I can’t believe that anyone would seriously consider this to be “frictionless”. – Yours, etc,

ROBIN FOYLE,

Ferrybank,

Wexford.

Sir, – Brexit: the undefined negotiated by the unprepared to get the unspecified for the uninformed. – Yours, etc,

TERRY NICHOL,

Blackrock,

Co Dublin.

Sir, – Andrew Norman’s recent letter (March 2nd) is greatly puzzling: it seems to line up “Angela Merkel and her Brussels minions” on one side and “the people of Britain and Ireland” on the other in the pre–Brexit negotiations.

May I remind Mr Norman that Ireland is remaining in the EU. When “Angela and her minions” negotiate with Britain, they will be representing all 27 member states of the EU – of which Ireland is one.

It seems to me that, so far, the sole danger to the Belfast Agreement emanates from London. Up to now, “Angela and her minions”, especially Michel Barnier, are doing a great job in obviating this danger.

I agree with Mr Norman that Brexit will hurt Ireland’s economy, but within the EU we have a decent chance of recovery. Outside the EU, we have none. – Yours, etc,

VINCENT MacCARTHY,

Athboy,

Co Meath.

Sir, – Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP has lamented the lack of interest in looking into technological solutions for the Border “issue”.

Since the DUP isn’t doing anything else at present, perhaps it could research the issue itself and present solutions for consideration by UK and EU authorities. – Yours, etc,

MICHAEL ALGAR,

Dún Laoghaire,

Co Dublin.