Irish Series: Could Brexit place Human Rights enjoyed under the Good Friday Agreement at risk?

Amidst all of the talk of Brexit, what may or may not happen, how it affects Britain, Europe, Ireland, Northern Ireland and whether it will even go ahead at all, several groups, including the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the Committee on the Administration of Justice in Belfast and the Irish Council for Civil Liberties have raised concerns that Human Rights and Equality provisions may be at serious risk after Brexit.

By way of the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed in April 1998, the British Government incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into the domestic law of Northern Ireland through the Human Rights Act. They were also given the power to strike down any legislation brought about by the Stormont Assembly if it did not conform with the ECHR. The Equality Commission was set up as a result which drew heavily on EU Equality legislation in seeking to protect the rights of employees on grounds of discrimination, as well as the provision of services on religious, political, gender or ethnic grounds.

The right to freedom of movement was also firmly cemented by the removal of tariffs and border checks, as well as the right of the people of Northern Ireland to hold British or Irish citizenship without risk of discrimination. A key aspect of the protection and preservation of these rights was the oversight by the European Courts and the promise of impartiality.

If Britain exits from the European Union, could this undermine the Human Rights and Equality provisions that form such a crucial part of the Good Friday Agreement?

After the meeting in December 2017, following which British and European negotiators issued a Joint Report, Britain committed to protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and ensuring there would be no diminution of rights as a result of Brexit. However, the Conservative Government has since rowed back on their position and have stated that the Joint Report was a Statement of Intent only and would not be bound by anything stated therein until an agreement was made about all aspects of Britain’s exit. Infact, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill 2017-19 which is currently proceeding through British Parliament, states that the EU Charter will cease to have effect in Britain from the proposed date of withdrawal, which is March 2019. The Conservative Party also appears committed to repealing the Human Rights Act and replacing it with a weaker British Rights Act.

What will this mean in the context of Northern Ireland, its relationship with the rest of Britain and most notably with the Republic of Ireland? Will Ireland be expected to, for example, implement Britain’s more restrictive immigration policies post-Brexit when it comes to free movement of people across the North/South Border, be they British, Northern Irish or European citizens or those travelling from further afield?

Could the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union lead to a dismantling of the safeguards so carefully protected and an erosion of the confidence in the Good Friday Agreement and all those who abide and live within the terms agreed? These are questions which have to be addressed in Westminster, Stormont and Leinster House before any agreement can formally move forward.

What is clear is that no-one knows for certain what will happen after Brexit and how it will affect borders, economic, trade or agricultural issues.

 

Meaby&Co will be hosting a number of seminars in both London and Dublin over the coming months to explore the issues, ask questions and talk about how we can ensure that whatever happens, Ireland and the UK continue to work together for the benefit of all.

To find out more about our upcoming seminars and how you can attend, contact Caoimhe Boyce on cboyce@meaby.co.uk.

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