The Joint Committee of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is an important institution under the Good Friday Agreement with a mandate to consider human rights issues on the island of Ireland.
I met with the Joint Committee on 23 January last to discuss Human Rights under the Good Friday Agreement and Brexit. This was a very worthwhile exchange with members of the Joint Committee setting out a number of issues and concerns which are raised by the UK exit. I was pleased to discuss with the Joint Committee the Government’s views and responsibilities as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, and our ongoing engagement through the Article 50 negotiations, to ensure the protection of the Agreement in all its parts.
The Joint Committee published its policy statement on the UK withdrawal from the European Union on 13 March, making a number of recommendations to ensure the ongoing protection of rights on the island of Ireland. The Joint Committee is uniquely placed as an institution of the Good Friday Agreement to address the issues that Brexit raises for human rights on this island. The Joint Committee’s policy statement and continuing engagement on these important issues is therefore very welcome, and indeed essential, as all those with responsibilities seek workable and agreed solutions through the Article 50 negotiations to ensure the protection of the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts.
The Joint Committee has provided its policy statement to the Government and careful consideration is being given to the recommendations, taking account of the Joint Committee’s mandate and expertise, and the Government’s role and responsibilities as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, as well as the provisions of that Agreement.
The Joint Committee’s recommendations refer to issues which also directly relate to responsibilities of the UK Government and to the role of the European Union. I understand that the Joint Committee has therefore also provided its policy statement to the UK Government, to the European Commission Article 50 Task force and to the European Parliament for consideration as appropriate.
In the context of the UK withdrawal from the EU, the Government is determined to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts is fully protected, including the provisions relating to rights. The human rights and equality provisions of the Good Friday Agreement are central to the Peace Process, supporting the confidence and willingness of all communities to participate in and operate the agreed political institutions and protect everyone equally.
The Government appreciates the solidarity and support which has been shown by all of our EU partners in respect of Ireland’s unique issues and concerns, including the protection of the Good Friday Agreement. These concerns are being progressed by the Union through the Article 50 negotiations with the UK.
On 8 December last, a Joint Report between the EU and UK negotiators was agreed, and this included important commitments in respect of protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts. On 18 February, the European Commission published a draft Withdrawal Agreement including a Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The Protocol translates into legally-binding terms the firm commitments made in December. Accordingly, the Protocol proposes that the UK ensures no diminution of rights, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement, including by respecting EU non-discrimination laws, and that these commitments are implemented through a dedicated mechanism. The Protocol also proposes that the UK facilitate the related work of the institutions and bodies of the Agreement, including the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and the Joint Committee of representatives of the Human Rights Commissions of Northern Ireland and Ireland. The Protocol also clearly acknowledges that the people of Northern Ireland who choose to identify as Irish, and therefore as citizens of the EU, will continue to enjoy the rights, opportunities and benefits that come with EU citizenship.
More work will be required between the UK and the EU in phase two on rights and equality issues, as is provided for in the Joint Report. The Government is continuing to engage intensively on these issues.