THERE is growing concern over the threat Brexit poses to human rights and equality in Northern Ireland, with Hillary Clinton the latest to call for action to protect the peace process, writes the SCI’s Steven McCaffery.
The former US Secretary of State cited the dangers posed to the Good Friday/Belfast peace deal in an address at Queen’s University Belfast where she received an honorary degree.
Her comments came days after a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement in Northern Ireland warned of the Brexit threat to human rights, while the Committee on the Administration of Justice lodged a complaint with the European Ombudsman over the “watering down” of safeguards in the Brexit process.
Secretary Clinton addressed an audience that included academics, students, political parties and human rights organisations, where she urged political leaders to find a way to minimise the damage she said would be caused by Brexit.
“The uncertainty around Brexit for everyone is substantial, but here in Northern Ireland it is acute,” she said.
“I make no excuse for being against Brexit from the start. I thought it was a bad idea before the referendum and I think it is an even worse idea now. It may well go down as one of greatest and most unnecessary self-inflicted wounds in modern history.”
Secretary Clinton signalled that the full impact of the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU) is still unclear, but added: “It’s crucial that however it comes out, Brexit should not be allowed to undermine the peace and prosperity that has been so dearly won here.”
Brexit contributed to the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government in January 2017. Today the administration at Stormont, created to bridge divisions between communities in Northern Ireland, remains in moth balls.
Secretary Clinton proposed the formation of an interim government Executive to contribute to the management of the Brexit process and to protect the gains made in the 1998 Good Friday/Belfast agreement.
She then highlighted the protection of rights as a key task: “Imagine an Executive working to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is protected in `all its parts’, as the EU and UK promised last December.
“That means remaining committed to the EU’s equality norms, and applying the foundational European human rights laws, including the EU charter of fundamental rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.”
She went on to say that the work of the courts, which are currently linked to a range of European protections, could also be safeguarded.
She told her audience of the wide ranging nature of the Good Friday agreement, highlighting its success in bridging divisions between Ireland and Britain, as well as between communities in Northern Ireland, and between both parts of the island of Ireland. She added that the accord “protected the rights of every community”.
Significantly, she also raised the crucial European components of the network of safeguards that underpin the peace process.
Secretary Clinton’s October 10 speech can be watched in full here.
Her address came after a leader of Northern Ireland’s civil rights movement in the 1960s, Michael Farrell, also warned that Brexit risked damaging human rights.
In a media interview marking the 50th anniversary of a milestone in the civil rights movement he said: “Within the Good Friday Agreement there are a range of legal protections for people’s human rights, as the European Convention of Human Rights has been brought into domestic law, meaning Stormont’s actions can be struck down by the European Court.
“The European Union law brought in a lot of the equality provisions in Northern Ireland, not just between unionist and nationalists, but equality within race or gender too.
“The [UK’s] Conservative Government want to repeal the European Human Rights Act. If Brexit goes through, the Charter of Human Rights from the European Union will cease from the day that Brexit is completed.
“Those laws underpin the Good Friday Agreement, and if you pull them out, and create a hard border, it will create huge disillusionment in Northern Ireland.”
In December 2017 the UK and the EU agreed a blueprint for the Brexit negotiations, which included a pledge to protect the Good Friday agreement in “all its parts”.
The Belfast-based Committee on the Administration (CAJ) has now filed a formal complaint with the European Ombudsman over the question of how citizens’ rights will be safeguarded post-Brexit.
The CAJ is concerned that the protections promised in December have since been watered down. A report on the complaint can be read here.
The CAJ and academics from Queen’s University Belfast and Ulster University also recently released a series of reports on the impact of Brexit on the peace process, available here.