By Niall Muprhy.

On 23 June 2016, 56 per cent of people in the North voted to remain in the European Union (EU). They did so because it is in our best interests politically and economically. The reckless and irresponsible rhetoric that has conditioned the British government’s approach to effecting the party-political intention of the British Conservative Party has thrust the entire viability of the United Kingdom into terminal constitutional decline.

It has heralded the inevitability of a second independence referendum in Scotland and also paralysed our own society with a constitutional convulsion, which in the early part of 2016 was not on the immediate horizon of anyone – Protestant, Catholic or dissenter.

The vast majority of people in Ireland do not want Brexit. No-one in Ireland sought a Brexit referendum. The overwhelming decision of the referendum in this jurisdiction was that we want to remain in the European Union. Brexit is being forced upon us against our will.

Notwithstanding this clear democratic mandate, we as a society and a people are being dragged out of the EU against our will. We are expected to silently comply as the British government plays Russian roulette with our economic and constitutional futures and our rights as citizens. Our EU rights are being ripped from us.

Brexit is one part of a sustained attack on the concept and the practice of human rights, and one further contribution to the attempted erosion of the core constitutional values of our peace/political process.

It was therefore in the spirit of a legal, policy and political challenge and a constitutional confrontation that a group of pro-EU Irish nationalist people from disparate sectors of society – education, health, business, law, the arts, academia, the community and voluntary sector, and sports – came together to articulate our serious concerns.

We collectively invested our future hopes and aspirations in the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and it being implemented and thereby opening up a new chapter in the history of Ireland.

The conviction of wider nationalist, democratic and progressive opinion in 1998 was that the GFA would ensure a break with the past and guarantee us and future generations peace, guaranteed rights, equality and respect in an Ireland which continued to democratically transform itself.

Nearly 21 years on, the GFA has still not been fully implemented. Some sections of political unionism still oppose its very existence. Many of the political fault lines within our politics and society remain unresolved. Our hard-won peace process and its political architecture have too often been taken for granted. We may have peace, but we have not seen enough progress, and Brexit does not occur in a vacuum.

When more than 200 Irish citizens from the North signed an open letter to An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in December 2017 it came at the end of a tumultuous and politically defining year.

That January the GFA political institutions collapsed amidst the political and financial scandal of the Renewable Heat Incentive. It served to confirm the growing view of northern nationalists that political unionism was not committed to proper power-sharing through the denial and refusal of equality, rights and respect towards the section of the community to which we belong, rights such as the following:

Access to justice

All victims of the conflict had the right to avail of mechanisms in accordance with European defined laws, to have access to justice.
Compliance with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) is not an issue for Stormont. Stormont is not a sovereign entity, but Westminster is, and it is Westminster that signed the ECHR.

That Westminster sought to then derogate from its ECHR duties by alleging that its compliance with the ECHR is somehow a matter for political consensus at Stormont is a deft sleight of hand of Machiavellian proportions.

Marriage equality

Leo Varadkar and indeed the Irish government rightly speak with pride in respect of the referendum vote in 2016 which brought same-sex marriage equality to the south.

Marriage equality was promoted by the Irish government as a fundamental rights issue in the referendum, yet it is relegated to a matter of political consensus here.  Rights are not negotiable or a matter of consensus.

Many Americans voted for slavery but thankfully it was considered to be an abomination and was ended. Why is it that citizens of England, Scotland, Wales and the south all benefit from marriage equality but it is a right denied to citizens of our micro-jurisdiction?

Language rights

A clear example of the DUP’s rejection of the concept of parity of esteem is the party’s sneering contempt for Acht na Gaeilge. Our language is an intrinsic part of all of our identity as citizens, yet we endure contemptuous taunts, such as “Curry My Yoghurt” and “Crocodiles” and the cancellation of microscopic bursaries for the Donegal Gaeltacht.

The fact is that this jurisdiction is the only region in Britain or Ireland that makes no statutory provision for the protection of a minority language in accordance with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

Irish is an official language in the Republic of Ireland, with Welsh given statutory protection under the Welsh Language Act 1993, with Scots Gaelic protected under the Achd na Gàidhlig (Alba) 2005.

Again – why is it that citizens of Scotland, Wales and the south all benefit from statutory protection for an indigenous language but it is a right denied to citizens of our micro-jurisdiction?

It would seem that there can be no regulatory alignment on this island, and Bangor must be as British as Finchley, unless you are gay and want to be married, or seek to live a life through the medium of Irish with statutory protection.

Rights are not British or Irish. Rights are for everyone. Everyone benefits with a strong framework for the protection of rights, and everyone loses when rights are denied.

This contempt mobilised the nationalist and republican electorate: in turn the unionist political majority in the Assembly was ended in the elections of March 2017. Increased unionist belligerence continued, and then the nationalist constituency sent a stark message during the subsequent Westminster election held in June that year, that it was turning its back on Westminster.

It has been confirmed in a parliamentary response by EU Commission President Juncker to a question posed by MEP Martina Anderson that the North would no longer be considered to be in an EU member state, and that whilst Irish citizens would remain EU citizens, benefits from UK participation in EU programmes would end with Brexit.

This position would leave Irish citizens here with access to almost none of the following EU rights, rendering us, in effect, second-class citizens, in our own country:

  • The political right to stand as and vote for MEPs. The right to vote for an MEP is normally tied into the member state of residency.
  • Continued use of the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Access to an EHIC normally involves billing the health authorities in the EU member state of residence – for example, the NHS.
  • Studying elsewhere and being able to avail of EU student fee rates. Access to EU student fees rates normally requires residency in an EU member state for three of the previous five years.

So without special arrangements, access in practice to these EU rights would be lost to Irish citizens resident here – unless of course they left and went to live somewhere else in the EU.

Practical Scenarios

In reality this means:

We will be disenfranchised. The democratic rights of us Irish and EU citizens in the north, including the right to direct representation in the European Parliament, need to be protected. We must continue to lobby the Irish government to ensure that right is protected by creating a mechanism for people in the North to continue to elect an MEP, i.e. by means of a single constituency.

If you are on holiday in France and fall, you will not be able to access their health service without paying or having medical insurance. An elderly person requiring medical assistance such as dialysis will in effect be grounded, as they will not be able to obtain insurance.

If you have a child wanting to study in Trinity or UCD, you will have to pay. For example QUB undergraduate annual tuition fees for NI domiciled students are £3,925; the same figure is applied for EU students – whereas the figure for international students is between £13k (classroom-based courses) and up to £34k for clinical medical courses. If you have a child aged under 16 today, who hopes to study in the south, as things stand they will be treated as a non-EU national and will be charged accordingly as you must be resident in an EU state for three of the preceding five years. So if Brexit happens in March 2019, a child now aged 16 will not have the requisite three of five years to attend Trinity or UCD.

Other rights denied include the fact that the ability to take up work is dependent on mutual qualification recognition, which will end with Brexit. The right to be joined by family members (who are not EU/EEA nationals) are an inherent part of EU treaty rights to work and study, which also end with Brexit.

On 2 November 2018, more than 1,000 citizens endorsed a direct appeal to An Taoiseach and his government to act in defence of the GFA and citizens’ rights. Individuals with varied political affiliations and none made a direct public appeal to the Taoiseach to stand by his government’s stated commitment that no Irish citizen living in the north would ever be left behind by an Irish government.

The letter was signed by 323 business people, the employers of tens of thousands of people; 115 senior educationalists including more than 30 school principals, along with prominent figures from third-level institutions and teachers from all parts of the North; 82 lawyers; 75 healthcare professionals, including more than 20 doctors and consultants; 30 senior All Ireland medallists; doyens of our arts sector and the leaders of our communities. It was signed by dozens of senior journalists and trade unionists, seven university professors, three Olympic medallists, three Oscar winners, two men who lifted the Sam Maguire, and one man who climbed Everest.

In total, the letter was signed by over a thousand leaders from the nationalist community. This is testament to an evolving earthquake in terms of an awakening of nationalist confidence. The 1012 names are symbolic – the letter was not a petition, but a representative sample of the views of hundreds of thousands of people across the North, and indeed across the entire island.

Beyond Brexit conference

That correspondence was then followed up with a truly unique conference on Saturday 26 January 2019 [pictured above], when more than 1,500 people filled the Waterfront Hall in Belfast to attend what the Irish News described as the most significant constitutional event in a century, as the leaders of the SDLP and Sinn Féin and senior figures from the Irish government and Fianna Fáil attended to give their respective views on Brexit.

Constitutional law experts, legacy and language activists, environmentalists, economic experts and political commentators all spoke to the topic of the viability of a new constitutional arrangement.

Conversations about the future, and future constitutional change, are happening in unexpected places. In recent weeks the trade union movement and senior figures from the GAA have spoken publicly about new constitutional arrangements. Ireland has changed dramatically over the course of the past 20 years.

Catalyst for unity

The roadmap for the journey from Brexit Britain to Little England is being led by the blind, the ignorant and the reckless. Mark Twain once said that you should never argue with stupid people, as they would drag you down to their level and beat you with their experience.

Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees Mogg and their ERG colleagues are indeed experienced; however we cannot stand idly by. We must avoid a hard border at all costs and as reported in the Irish Times recently, preparations are being made as we speak.

Motorists from the south who plan to drive across the Border from the end of next month will have to start applying for a so-called Green Card or risk penalties for driving without insurance. The Motor Insurers’ Bureau of Ireland has issued about one million Green Card forms, as well as electronic application templates, to insurance companies and insurance brokers in case there is a no-deal Brexit. As the realities of Brexit press home in the coming weeks, the tolerance for it will radically diminish.

On a visit to Ireland in December 2017, EU Council President Donald Tusk ruled out a hard border, saying: “Ní neart go cur le chéile” – there is no strength without unity. Our initiatives – at the Waterfront, our correspondence to the Taoiseach, and our ongoing lobbying in Europe and the US – has demonstrated a unity of confidence and purpose, and may become a catalyst for a unity not envisaged by the proponents and architects of Brexit.

Niall Murphy is a Belfast solicitor with human rights law firm KRW Law and an organiser of the ‘Beyond Brexit: The Future of Ireland’ conference.

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