I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for inviting the Irish Council for Civil Liberties to present today and the other members of the Seanad in attendance. Many Senators are familiar with our organisation as an independent civil liberties and human rights organisation which has been campaigning in Ireland since 1976. We can all take for granted as a starting point that there is common purpose in the Houses and civil society in Ireland that human rights issues as pertaining to Northern Ireland and the island as a whole should be foremost treated as a priority by the Irish Government in the ongoing process. What I want to do very briefly today is to place some of these human rights issues in their historical context and also in the context of developments in the protection of human rights in Europe at this time, and then link this to how they might inform and be taken on board by the Irish Government in how it engages with the process at bilateral level and at European level.
The history of human rights activism in Ireland, of which our organisation is a representative, is inextricably linked initially with the conflict in Northern Ireland, the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland and, subsequently, the peace process in Northern Ireland. Human rights activism has always been on an all-island basis, as can been seen by the work of my organisation and of the Committee on the Administration of Justice in its engagement with the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation and in the period leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. All this contributed to human rights being a central pillar of the Agreement, as Professor Harvey has outlined.
It is in this context that those of us concerned with human rights in this jurisdiction and in Northern Ireland acknowledge that the threat posed by Brexit is a fundamental and grave one to the protection of human rights at all levels in all parts of the island. To pick up on some of the issues Professor Harvey addressed on specific and substantive threats to areas of rights practice at present, the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights is perhaps the most significant and obvious area where there are existing protections under European law which will come into jeopardy with the anticipated withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the Union. However, we also wish to raise awareness of other growing areas of EU competence, very often at a seminal and seed level, which potentially could be lost in this process.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties has participated in recent years in a number of cross-European projects connected to the EU Stockholm programme on justice, freedom and security. The area of procedural rights and victims' rights is just one example of an area where the Union has advanced a very progressive and substantive agenda of enriching national jurisdiction protections in this area. Another example is the area of procedures on the asylum process. These are in addition to more established areas of equality and other European Union competences. Not only could Brexit potentially remove Northern Ireland citizens from these existing and developing areas of protection, it will also exclude civil society and academia in Britain and Northern Ireland from having a participative role in, for example, developing new standards in which we are currently involved with European partners.
This also presents a particular challenge for Ireland's civil society, academia and policymakers because, certainly in the area of criminal justice reform, to take one particular example, we have very often worked in parallel with our British colleagues given our unique legal heritage in Ireland. There are many very interesting examples of how EU criminal justice reform, particularly in the past ten years, has shown the potential symbiotic rights discourse that can develop from an engagement between a civil law tradition and a common law tradition. The context for this must surely change with the removal of the United Kingdom from this conversation. We can only anticipate that the balance between these two traditions is likely to shift further towards the Napoleonic model rather than the common law tradition.
This raises the question of our understanding of law and the relationship between common law and European law. Certainly, public attitudes to and misunderstanding of the nature and sources of European law in its widest sense are central to the political and public context of the Brexit vote last year in the United Kingdom and wider British political discourse about its future relationship with Europe. We should be concerned about the nature of this discourse as well as the political event of June last year. We have seen a shift in Britain not only of an anti-European nature but also of a very much anti-human rights political agenda, extending to attacks on the Judiciary and the rule of law in media discourse and, more recently, towards the parliamentary opposition itself, describing its members as saboteurs. This can be seen as a continuation of a 20-year process of denigration of all things European and all things human rights in the British press. The focus is not only on the European Union as the source of all ill but also increasingly on the European Convention on Human Rights. The relationship and connection between both discourses is manifest in the confusion one sees regularly in British political discourse between the institutions in Brussels, Luxembourg, Strasbourg, the Council of Europe and the European Union.
We should be in no doubt that as a political agenda the Human Rights Act is very much in the sights of the same political agenda that has brought with it Brexit.
This has been confirmed on a number of occasions by both the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor. While it remains to be seen where this issue appears on the agenda of the current general election campaign, it is certainly part of a medium-term agenda of the Conservative Party.
Not only does this go to the very heart of the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions, but it also presents a seismic development for Europe and for the protection of human rights across the Continent as a whole. We need to see Brexit not only in a British and Irish context but also in terms of where it fits into the wider movement against human rights across the Continent. We are seeing a changing political atmosphere for rights and an open hostility to human rights institutions and human rights laws by many governments in Europe that would have been difficult to foresee as recently as a decade ago.
In his annual report for 2016, launched yesterday, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, stated, "2016 will likely be remembered as a critical turning point for human rights in Europe" and "We will either see it as a low point from which European countries, individually and collectively, bounced back to reaffirm their commitment to human rights, or it will mark the beginning of the end of the European human rights system and European integration."
They are strong words, but he accompanies them with concrete references to developments in Turkey, Russia, and France. All of these countries have recently derogated from provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights. There are, of course, also worrying developments in countries such as Ukraine and Poland, which have witnessed attacks on the rule of law itself.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties is part of the International Network of Civil Liberties Organisations. We know, for example, that our colleagues in Hungary are facing very acute attacks on their freedom of operation. We are also seeing attacks on the rule of law in that country and, indeed, on independent universities. At this point in time Ireland, as country that has a record of championing the democratic role of independent civil society, has a particular role in not only engaging with the threats specifically arising from the Brexit legal phenomenon but also with the wider political phenomenon of which it is a part.
Ireland has been a champion at UN level on the position of human rights defenders in civil society for several decades and has prioritised the positions of human rights defenders in its work overseas through Irish Aid. We feel this is an important time for Ireland to make this priority central to its engagement with the Brexit process. As a progressive country which has retained its commitment to human rights at a time of great upheaval across Europe, Ireland has a duty to defend the core European values we cherish so much. The manner in which we approach the forthcoming Brexit negotiations will be defining in that regard. There are a number of core principles that might be of specific and tangible relevance in this regard.
First, we should of course give the highest priority to the implications of Brexit on the human rights of all those who live in Northern Ireland. Professor Harvey and Mr. Farrell addressed some of the specific discrete areas of policy in that regard. Second, the Irish Government should defend the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions, specifically those linked to the human rights pillar of the Agreement. In addition to its value to all the people of Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement is of profound international significance as it is a peace agreement which is firmly founded on human rights principles. It has been an exemplar for peace processes in other parts of the world, and indeed the Irish Government has extended its experience and expertise to be of assistance to similar processes on that basis. Therefore, the collapse or erosion of the human rights structures of the Good Friday Agreement are of equally great resonance on the international scale.
Third, and finally, the Irish Government should recognise that Brexit cannot be understood in isolation. Brexit is not simply a bilateral matter; it is part of a wider process of attacks on and erosions of human rights in the United Kingdom and at European level. The wider forces of regression of human rights are becoming stronger across Europe and it is essential that those countries that retain a firm commitment to human rights, which Ireland clearly does, define their position in the Brexit talks as being grounded in a commitment to defending the laws and institutions of those rights at all levels.
The Irish Council for Civil Liberties believes that such a principled multilateral approach to the Brexit talks, recognising Brexit as being about much more than a set of North-South and east-west issues, would be consistent with Ireland’s well-established international profile on human rights, but would also have the effect of strengthening our position at the European level as an active voice, not just on Brexit, but on the wider discussions about the future of Europe which are inextricable from the Brexit process and which must certainly follow as a priority for the Union as a whole.