Speaking last night to the Foreign Relations Committee of the New York Bar Association, Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald TD gave the following speech.
The impact of Brexit on rights
When I was invited to take part in a Brexit Questions and Answers session, I believed that we would have all of the answers to what Brexit will mean.
This week, the British parliament voted against the deal, they voted against having no deal, they voted to extend the process, and next week they could vote again on the deal they rejected this week.
I never thought that it would be possible to make Brexit worse, but this British government have proved me wrong.
The actions of the British Government have compounded the disaster that is Brexit.
Our people and businesses don’t know if they will be in or out of the EU in two weeks.
What we do know is that Brexit was never in Ireland’s interest.
It was about the British Tory party.
It is about a particular English nostalgia for an imperial past that is long gone.
It is the product of an elite seeking to game the present and enrich their future through deregulation and erosion of rights.
It was never in the interest of ordinary people. It was never in the interest of workers. It was never in the interest in Ireland North or South. It was never in the interest of our peace agreements.
Ireland is once again collateral damage in the machinations of a government at Westminster
The government that partitioned our country.
Every decade since partition, up until the Good Friday Agreement, was marked by violent conflict and state repression.
The border became increasingly militarised, with Hilltop forts, helicopter flyovers and army checkpoints. The border was the physical manifestation of the failure of British policy in Ireland.
Since the signing of the Agreement and with the subsequent agreements, there has been peace and there has been progress. It’s been slow, it’s been challenging and it’s been frustrating but we are in a better place because of the agreements.
The border infrastructure is gone. The delays are over. The Good Friday Agreement rendered the border invisible.
There would have been no Good Friday Agreement without the active involvement of US administrations or without the active support of Irish American and other activists here.
However, our Island is still partitioned, and the Border remains contested. The agreements provide a framework for managing the relationships within the North, between the North and South and between the island of Ireland and Britain.
It is based on recognising and respecting individual rights, including the right to British Citizenship, Irish Citizenship or both.
It built interlinked and interdependent institutions based on powersharing, equality and North South Co-operation.
It also provides for a peaceful and democratic pathway to Irish unity. A people’s referendum on Unity.
The Good Friday Agreement was endorsed by referendums North and South. It is an internationally recognised and binding agreement on both governments. They are custodians of the peoples vote, co-equal and joint guarantors of the agreements
The Good Friday Agreement, the rights of citizens, and all-Ireland cooperation is unpinned by Irish and British membership of the EU.
Brexit changes everything. That is why we have consistently said that Brexit is incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement.
That is why we need a special status for the north in the Brexit negotiations.
The EU get that, Theresa May conceded that when she agreed to the backstop.
The Withdrawal Agreement is clear that the GFA must be protected in all its parts and that’s why a Backstop, a bare minimum guarantee was required.
It is about protecting the agreements, progress and rights of citizens.
We have a porous border stretching over 300 miles, with hundreds of crossings. Bisecting communities, farmland and even workplaces.
There are thousands crossing the border every day for work. Children traveling across it for school. Patients for treatment. All as easy as crossing the road.
That is because both parts of the island are in the EU.
And there are multiple examples of cross-border projects focusing on infrastructure, regional development, business and job creation, health, women, children and young people, to mention but a few.
There are many more examples of public and private bodies across the island working together, from municipal authorities, to cross-border implementation bodies, to health agencies, to higher education institutions, to community and voluntary sector organisations, to small businesses.
Make no mistake; Brexit leaves all of this hanging in the balance.
The Good Friday Agreement states that a person born in the North can have Irish, British or joint citizenship and be afforded equal treatment and equal rights.
After the Good Friday Agreement was signed, the Dublin government codified in law its recognition of the dual nature of citizenship for people born in the North, thus accepting both nationalities.
The British government did not do this.
Under British law, Irish citizens born in the North are classified as British citizens by default and are treated under law as British. After Brexit and without an agreement, Irish Citizens could be treated as visitors in their own land.
On the matter of citizens’ rights, what will change after Brexit Day?
That depends on if the Withdrawal agreement is implemented or if we have a crash out Brexit.
In a crash out Brexit, we are into the unknown and unforeseen.
The implications will be immediate and far reaching.
While there is a commitment to maintain the Common Travel Area, freedom of travel north and south and between Ireland and Britain, this is not on a sound legislative basis.
What we know that even with the Withdrawal Agreement, freedom of movement, one of the indivisible freedoms of the EU, will be curtailed.
Currently, EU citizens have all the rights necessary to visit, live, work, and study in other EU member states without being subject to immigration rules.
Irish citizens with an Irish passport, born in the North will by extension hold EU citizenship which means they’ll still have the freedom to move to the EU.
However, Northerners with British passports won’t have that level of freedom to travel to the EU.
And non-Irish EU citizens travelling to the North from elsewhere in the EU, from the South for example, will be subject to tougher immigration controls.
How will that movement be policed exactly? We’re told there won’t be a hard border in Ireland—basically, there won’t be physical barriers—but the stricter rules will have to be enforced somewhere.
Will it be by bus drivers taking people into the North? Will it be by employers? Will we have a case of certain people being singled out and treated like second-class citizens?
Then there’s the democratic right to vote and stand candidates in EU elections. That right will be lost to all citizens in the North. The EU provide for the Irish Government to reallocate seats to the North following Brexit. They refused and retained the additional seats for the south, leaving Irish Citizens in the North without representation in the European Parliament.
They’re also losing access to the Court of Justice of the EU, the court that administers justice in cases concerning EU law, the court that’s been a safety net for citizens who believe they didn’t get fair treatment in the domestic judicial system.
Health is another area of concern. Current EU standards and regulations in the use of medical devices, the regulation and approval of medicines, and access to medication for medical treatment are all at risk for those living in the North.
And in education, there’s a real chance that citizens from the North will have to pay higher tuition fees if they wish to attend university in the EU.
They’re likely to be denied access to the Erasmus programme too—a fabulous student exchange programme that facilitates third level students to work and study anywhere in the EU. Such changes could put university attendance out of financial reach for those in the North. The changes would further restrict citizens born in the North from accessing all but two of the universities on the island of Ireland.
The EU has a substantial set of anti-discrimination and equality laws provided on the basis of race, sexual orientation, religion, disability, age. In the North, where there isn’t a stand-alone Equality Act that enshrines these EU laws in domestic law, citizens depend almost entirely on EU law (and the Court of Justice) to have those rights honoured.
Many workers’ rights exist because of EU law, for example, sick leave and maternity leave entitlements, fair treatment at work, and the principle of equal-treatment between standard workers and (comparable) part-time, fixed-term, and temporary agency workers.
There’s no guarantee that the British government will secure these rights into the future. They’ve made a promise to that effect but refused to legislate on the issue.
The most fundamental abuse of rights in the Brexit process has been the refusal by the British Government to accept the democratic vote of the people in the North to remain in the EU.
Britain can Brexit. That is their choice. But the people in the North voted to remain.
Brexit demonstrates the undemocratic nature of partition. Never again should the games being played in Westminster be allowed to undermine our interests. Our economy and the rights of citizens.
The Good Friday Agreement provides for a unity referendum. The people should be allowed to have their say.
There are those who say that this is not the time. This is precisely the time to look beyond Brexit and to plan for a future Ireland together. An Ireland that respects the rights of citizens, that is prosperous and fair. An Ireland that can be a home to all who share the island.
Early in the negotiations, the EU reflected on the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement to deliver fundamental constitutional change. They recognised that the agreement provided for a United Ireland. In that circumstance then a United Ireland would automatically be an EU member.
A path back to the EU post Brexit is clear. A united Ireland is route back to the EU. The issue in Ireland is not only about being British or Irish but also European.
That has changed the dynamic for many who hold modern European values.
Change is coming, it began before Brexit and will continue after Brexit. It is up to us to all to manage that change.
I hope that just as the US stood with us and made possible the Good Friday Agreement.
They will continue to stand with us in the process of building a new and united Ireland.