The UK government is being urged to agree to a “human rights backstop” in Northern Ireland to ensure “invisible” rights protected in the Good Friday agreement are guaranteed in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Northern Ireland and Ireland’s human rights commissioners are calling for a bill of rights or a guarantee that the EU charter of fundamental rights will remain in effect in Northern Ireland.
These rights are already enshrined in Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement but will be shredded in a no-deal scenario.
“They only apply to Northern Ireland. If we leave without a deal all those safeguards fall away,” says Les Allamby, chief commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.
He and his counterpart south of the border, Emily Logan, have raised their concerns amid fears that the societal aspects of Brexit’s impact have been lost in the noise about border checks and trade.
Human rights were listed in the Northern Ireland protocol in May’s deal, in recognition that human rights failed to keep pace with the rest of the UK, with abortion and same sex marriage two high-profile examples.
They also reflected the post-conflict realities spelled out in the Good Friday agreement.
Logan, head of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, said: “One of the rights listed in the Good Friday agreement is the ‘right to freely choose one’s place of residence’. Where else within the UK would have that written down, a basic right to chose where you live.”
She added: “This is the reality, this is where Northern Ireland came from,” she added, pointing to page 20 of the Good Friday agreement which lists the human rights that need to be protected.
Other areas of the Northern Ireland protocol include a pledge to keep pace and preserve EU law providing equality employment rights, self-employment rights, social services, and non-discrimination on race and ethnic origin.
The two human rights commissions were set up as a result of the Good Friday agreement to protect and enforce rights on both sides of the border.
But their respective chiefs lament the disproportionate attention given to trade, customs and tariffs. “We’ve been at the forefront of what’s been an invisible debate,” said Logan.
They said too few politicians recognised that the region was already different to the rest of the UK because of the troubles.
“Human rights was such a contested area in Northern Ireland,” said Allamby. “Human rights issues have not moved forward in the same pace as the rest of the UK – abortion and gay rights being two good examples.
A bill of rights is a human rights backstop, an insurance policy.”
They said one option is for the EU charter of fundamental rights to be preserved for Northern Ireland until an alternative is found.
Allamby is also concerned that a no-deal Brexit will create a two-tier society in Northern Ireland, with Irish passport holders continuing to hold freedom of movement rights and potentially access to education and Erasmus programmes in all EU member states.
He said that will breach the Good Friday agreement, where equality of those who identify as Irish and/or British is enshrined.
At the core of their argument is a concern that the social cohesion in cross-border communities will be washed away by Brexit.
Pensioner clubs or church activities “on one side of the border or other” have flourished since 1998 helping to heal old wounds, said Allamby. “The fear is genuine for a generation who remember the troubles.”
Northern Ireland: calls for UK to agree ‘human rights backstop’ – The Guardian