Webinar Explores the Impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland


“Everything has changed.”

This statement by Professor Colin Harvey of the Queens University Belfast School of Law seemed to be the consensus of a recent virtual panel at Fordham Law exploring the ramifications for Brexit on Northern Ireland.

The November 18 event, hosted by the Fordham Irish Law Students Association, Fordham Law Ireland Program, and Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, featured experts on both sides of the Atlantic and covered topics ranging from human rights to the economic impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland.

Many of the panelists were critical of Brexit, with Harvey stating that Northern Ireland is being removed from the European Union “without its agreement and without its consent.”

Attorney and activist Niall Murphy stated that the “abuse of democracy which is Brexit” has “hauled [Northern Ireland] away from birthrights and citizens’ rights.”

Human Rights a Major Focus

Much of the panel’s focus centered around changes to human rights law and policy in Northern Ireland.

“Brexit comes out of an ethos of antipathy toward human rights,” said Martin Flaherty, Leitner Family Professor and co-founder of the Leitner Center. He stated that the so-called “movement to Make England Glorious Again” is a threat to human rights in Northern Ireland.

Flaherty noted that the United Kingdom continues to subscribe to the European Convention on Human Rights.

However, Murphy argued that although Brexit does not immediately and directly affect access to the European Court of Human Rights, “the event of Brexit smooths a path toward the repeal of the Human Rights Act,” which incorporates the protections of the European Convention into U.K. law.

Conversely, the panelists addressed concerns about the treatment of Northern Ireland citizens identifying as British. Murphy stated that these individuals will be well-represented and symbols of British identity will be protected. “Statues will not come down,” he said.

Harvey called attention to the importance of “values around mutual respect” and the need to prepare for a range of outcomes. “We know what the past was like and don’t want to go there again,” he observed

Economic impact and the cross-border flow of goods and people

Panelists also discussed the economic impact of Brexit.

Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University Belfast, noted that there will be no change in the free flow of goods on the island of Ireland, but Brexit affects the flow of services across the Ireland/Northern Ireland border. She also noted that Brexit will affect EU citizens seeking jobs in Northern Ireland. “We’re hoping to see a deal,” she noted.

The ability for people to travel between Northern Ireland and the EU is a particularly acute concern in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Murphy said he contracted COVID-19 in March and was in intensive care for 17 days. “More than half of the nurses and doctors that attended with me came from the European Union,” he observed.

Murphy added that he has been told by contacts in the industry that thousands of nurses, fearing an emergence of xenophobia, have left Northern Ireland since the UK voted to leave the EU in June of 2016. Murphy hypothesized about a European ambulance driver living in Ireland having to cross the border, asking, “Will he have the liberty to work inside and outside the European Union?”

Hayward said she wanted to “reassure people that medicine is covered by the protocol.” She noted that the ability of medicines to cross the British border is “one of the few things that has been agreed.”

Potential for a United Ireland

According to Harvey, any discussion about Northern Ireland and Brexit “has to involve and include a conversion about reunification of Ireland” and a resulting return of Northern Ireland to the EU. He said Brexit has reignited this conversation “in a way I’ve never seen.”

Hayward pointed to the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, and noted that a “new division” has developed around the “leave/remain identity difference” between those who want to remain in the UK and those who would like to reunite with Ireland. “Steadily over the past few years as we’ve been conducting this Northern Ireland Life & Times survey we’ve seen [an]increasing number of people say that Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely.”

Panelists Encourage U.S. Legal Community to Get Involved

Jennifer Frankola Crawford, a U.S.-based arbitrator and attorney and president of the Brehon Law Society of New York, brought the discussion back to the U.S. Noting that America has “thousands of connections to this small but mighty island,” she encouraged lawyers interested in social justice and human rights to keep a “vigilant and watchful eye” on the situation in Northern Ireland as the consequences of Brexit continue to evolve.


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