- The purpose of this contribution is to discuss the effect on human rights protection, in general but in particular in Northern Ireland, if the United Kingdom (UK) votes to leave the European Union (EU).
- The positive case for the EU in this respect rests on two main pillars: the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms and the development and application of equality and anti-discrimination laws. These are positive additional protections for human rights.
- However, if we look at economic and fiscal policy which emanates from the institutions of the EU, especially during the, so far, eight year long economic crisis, a somewhat different picture emerges. The response of EU institutions to the crisis has materially reduced social and economic rights and in the last year it has also become clear that the EU policies on migration have dramatically failed and we are now seeing wholesale human rights violations along the borders and within the territory of the EU.
- We may take the position that the EU’s human rights account is roughly balanced. What position, then, should human rights activists take in the debate around Brexit?
- A human rights approach does not give particular guidance on national identity or boundaries, nor on particular constitutional arrangements. 2 However, we have to consider both the political context in which the referendum on the UK’s membership is taking place and also the constitutional context in so far as it may impact upon human rights protections.
- The UK Government is proposing the repeal of the Human Rights Act from a perspective antipathetic to universal human rights and tainted with xenophobism. Much of the Brexit campaign has a similar approach.
- Constitutional chaos, and especially the unplanned dissolution of a nation state, is not good for human rights or the rule of law upon which they depend. The linked demands for repeal of the HRA and Brexit could lead to just such constitutional chaos.
- Regression on human rights protections will materially threaten the successful continuance of the peace process in Northern Ireland.
- In our view, therefore, a successful Brexit would lead to a “carnival of reaction” with the forces inimical to human rights in the ascendant and the peace process under threat. In practice, in this time and in this place, the exit of the UK from the EU would mean a huge blow to the state of human rights in general and in particular could lead to disaster in Northern Ireland.