A repeal of the Human Rights Act would amount to a breach of the Good Friday agreement, writes the professor of journalism Roy Greenslade
It is hardly surprising that the people of Britain, by which I mean the people of England, Scotland and Wales, are baffled by the key part in the Brexit drama being played out in Northern Ireland. After all, they have been treated to statements of breathtaking ignorance by Westminster politicians in recent months.
Consider this sample about the Irish border by leading Tory Brexiteers. Jacob Rees-Mogg: Its not a border that everyone has to go through every day. Boris Johnson: Its so small, and there are so few firms that actually use that border regularly. David Davis: the border problem can be solved by a whole load of new technology.
In fact, because the border has existed in name only for the past 20 years, it is crossed and recrossed by many thousands of cars and lorries on a daily basis. There are 208 crossing points, and technological monitoring appears unfeasible even in the highly unlikely event that people opposed to the border dont put the devices out of action.
Cross-border cooperation has become a fact of life and touches every sector, both public and private, including agriculture, health and higher education. People travel across the border to work. Regional development bodies aimed at improving the infrastructure on either side have been set up. Small businesses trade without a fuss across a frontier that to most people, especially the younger generation, is a meaningless entity.
There is growing consternation about the likely effects of leaving the EU, as highlighted in hundreds of yellow placards placed at border crossings by an organisation called Border Communities Against Brexit. There has been humour, too, with a three-part BBC TV series, Soft Border Patrol, lampooning the notion that it would be possible to police a re-established border.
But genuine concern about the border and the likely threat to the economies on either side of it is not the only fear haunting the 1.8 million people who live in the six counties that were carved from the island of Ireland in 1921. Just as compelling, and arguably more so, has been the realisation that Brexit is likely to destroy the delicate political framework erected in 1998.
The Good Friday agreement (GFA) made a specific reference to Britain and Ireland being partners in the European Union. And, crucially, the agreement committed the UK government to enshrine the European Convention of Human Rights in law, and therefore enabled Northern Irelands residents to benefit from the European court of human rights.
Although the British population may not realise it, this aspect of human rights protection was of immense importance in the northern Irish context because it was, and is, the cornerstone of the peace process. The GFA dismantled a political arrangement built on discrimination and replaced it with one of enforced power-sharing.
That was some achievement. And now, according to Michael Farrell, the man who led the civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland in 1968, it is imperilled by Brexit. In an Irish Times article last week, he pointed out that once Britain leaves the EU, the underpinning of human rights legislation vanishes.
The Conservative government has pledged to repeal the Human Rights Act, which incorporated the ECHR into UK law. Instead it wants to introduce a bill of rights, which will relieve British judges of the requirement to follow decisions by the European Court of Human Rights. It amounts to a breach of the GFA, but this is not a technical, legal issue in Northern Ireland, where rights are fundamental to the smooth workings of its society.
Fears of a further encroachment to human rights centre on the fact that one of Northern Irelands major parties, the DUP, which opposed the GFA and opposed EU membership, is also opposed to extensions in equality legislation. It also happens to be the party that keeps Theresa Mays government in power.
That reality has prompted the other major party, Sinn Fin, to call on Irelands constituency commission to maintain post-Brexit representation for Northern Irelands residents in the European parliament by allocating two new MEPs seats.
Sinn Fins current MEP in the north, Martina Anderson, argues that it would satisfy a commitment made in a joint EU-UK report that once Britain leaves the EU there should not be a diminution of the rights for the norths citizens.
She says: An exit from the EU stands to undo the progress of recent decades. Rather than being able to focus our energy on the forward march for more rights, we instead face losing what has already been won.
There has been tentative backing for Sinn Fins call by Irelands other main parties. Fianna Fils leader, Michel Martin, said earlier this year that it was conceivable that people north of the border would be able to cast their votes in future EU elections, while the Fine Gael MEP Sen Kelly has said the idea is worth exploring.
The DUP, however, is having none of it. Its MEP, Diane Dodds, believes that allowing people north of the border to vote in European elections after Brexit would redefine the benefits of Irish citizenship. She may well be right about that, of course. But Brexit redefines British citizenship too, does it not?
She might do well to remember that in the 2016 EU referendum 56% of Northern Irelands voters favoured staying in the EU. Is it democratic to threaten that majoritys human rights?