25 May 2023 Edition
Human rights compromised by Brexit
Human rights are an essential part of any functioning democracy, and most people rightly expect them to be embedded in the North of Ireland 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). Sadly, the opposite is the case.
The British Government’s departure from the European Union has had far-reaching implications for human rights, as demonstrated by three European reports detailing how the situation in the North of Ireland has worsened significantly.
The first report emerged a few months ago from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). PACE was concerned about the implications of Brexit on Irish and EU citizens in the Six Counties and appointed a Rapporteur, former Greek Foreign Affairs Minister George Katrougalos, to go to Ireland and report back his findings to the Assembly.
After engaging with individuals, civic society organizations, and human right advocates, Katrougalos warned that Brexit had resulted in a significant threat to the common human rights space on the island of Ireland. His report stated that “Brexit has already led to a diminution of the rights of Irish and EU citizens in Northern Ireland and threatens to do so to an even greater extent in the future”. This is a worrying assessment and highlights the extent to which human rights in the North have been compromised since Brexit.
A few weeks later, there was a second fact-finding mission by members of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol. The report’s author, former SIPTU General President Jack O’Connor, reported back to the EESC that both the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and Equality Commission had found that a number of measures taken by the British Government had potentially breached the rights protections set out in the Protocol.
In addition, the report found that the British government had failed to live up to its commitment in Article 2(2) of the Protocol “to continue to facilitate the work of the human rights and equality commissions established under the GFA”. The report highlighted concerns regarding “the financial autonomy of the NIHRC and thus whether it can discharge its core statutory functions”.
This is a significant blow to the North of Ireland’s human rights framework. The report goes on to state that “the loss of UN accreditation for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is deeply concerning and undermines the region’s ability to effectively protect and promote human rights”. This is a damning indictment of the current situation and highlights the extent to which human rights have been eroded.
Shortly after that, a third report was published by a delegation from the European Lawyers for Democracy and Human Rights and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers on the ‘Crisis in the Human Rights Framework of the Good Friday Agreement’.
This February 2023 report identified several concerns regarding human rights breaches in the North. These included the lack of effective human rights protections, the erosion of the rule of law, and the increasing use of emergency powers. The report concludes that “the human rights situation in Northern Ireland is deteriorating rapidly, and urgent action is needed to address the crisis”.
• George Katrougalos (former Greek government minister)
The evidence from these three reports is a stark warning about the extent to which human rights in the North have been deteriorating.
The reaction from the British establishment to all three reports has been unsurprising, yet frustrating. Once again, despite the evidence, the British Government disregarded human rights violations and tried to sweep all three reports under the carpet.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) debated the report, which was passed by its members, despite attempts by British members to stop it being debated.
The EESC Report which was endorsed and subsequently sent to the European Commission, the European Parliament, and European Council.
The Report by European, international, and South African Lawyers is perhaps the most damning. They travelled to Ireland for one-to-one meetings as well as carrying on online interviews with the Migrant Centre, the Human Rights Consortium, Relatives for Justice, the Pat Finucane Centre, the WAVE Trauma Centre, Committee on the Administration of Justice, the Equality Coalition, the Human Rights Committee of the Law Society, and academics from the Transitional Justice Institute.
After hearing and reviewing the evidence, the delegation stated, “There is an attempt by the present UK Government to unilaterally dismantle the human rights framework of the GFA, which is the foundation for peace in the region”.
The reaction from the British Government to these reports has been one of denial and deflection. They have attempted to downplay the severity of the situation and have refused to take responsibility for their actions. This is not surprising as the British Government has a long history of authorising, and then turning a blind eye to, human rights violations in the north of Ireland.
Both the Irish Government and Sinn Féin have called on the British Government to be accountable and to address the violations.
The Good Friday Agreement, which was a hard won peace agreement, includes strong human rights protections for all communities on the island of Ireland. It is a politically and legally binding international agreement with a promise for a better rights-based society predicated on justice, Section 75 equality legislation, a Bill of Rights, and an All-Ireland Charter of Rights.
Ultimately, the demand for social justice, equality, and human rights is closely tied to the struggle for Irish unity. Now, 25 years after the Good Friday Agreement, European, US, and South African human rights lawyers said, “When the Delegation compares the Human Rights Act (HRA) 1998 to its constitutionally aligned and entrenched equivalent in Ireland, the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003, this suggests that ultimately human rights in Northern Ireland would be better protected in a reunified Ireland”.
Post-Brexit, the British Government, a co-guarantor of the GFA, went on a full-frontal hostile attack on rights. Human rights in the North of Ireland have fallen through the floorboards since Brexit and the parachute of the EU, which provided protection, is no longer available to catch us.
These deeply concerning trends, aligned with a British Government offering nothing more than further transgressions of rights and entitlements if we stick with the status quo, have propelled a constitutional conversation about a progressive future based on equality, human rights, and constitutional change.
Giving the toxicity of the post-Brexit environment, the growing constitutional conversation in Ireland is being heard with interest across Europe.
These three damning international reports, steeped in a pool of evidence showing the extent of the human rights abuse that is being inflicted on people in the north of Ireland, must be understood and highlighted.
It is incumbent on Irish Republicans to continue to stand up for the human rights of all communities on the island of Ireland and to demonstrate with our actions and evidence-based analysis how social justice and a rights-based society will be the hallmarks of the new, united and progressive Ireland.
As Sinn Féin representative to Europe, I am deeply concerned about the diminution of human rights in the North of Ireland since Brexit, and I have been bringing evidence of our dwindling human rights protection to European Parliamentarians, foundations, and organisations across continental Europe.
Europeans are taking a greater political interest in the changing political landscape in Ireland, and many are rightly questioning why the Irish Government is not doing more to protect the human rights of all Irish citizens living on the island of Ireland.
• Martina Anderson is Sinn Féin representative in Europe