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.
“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.”
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”.
“These rights should not be conditional upon a requirement to declare Irish citizenship, in line with the guarantees of equality under the Belfast Agreement.”
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,
Director, Committee on the Administration of Justice
Executive Director, Irish Council for Civil Liberties
Chief Executive, The Free Legal Advice Centres
Director, Human Rights Consortium
Director, Children’s Law Centre
Director, Children’s Rights Alliance
Dr SUZANNE EGAN,
Assistant Professor, Sutherland School of Law,
Director, UCD Centre for Human Rights
Professor of Human Rights Law, Queen’s University Belfast
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
Professor of Human Rights and Constitutional Law, Ulster University.