Committee urges NI Secretary to put human rights at heart of Protocol debate

26 Oct 2021 10:53 AM

The House of Lords Sub-Committee on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland yesterday published a letter to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland setting out concerns about the implementation of Article 2 of the Protocol, which guarantees that human rights and equality provisions will not be lowered in Northern Ireland as a result of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

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On 13 September 2021 the House of Lords Sub-Committee heard evidence from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) and the Equality Commission Northern Ireland (ECNI). Under Article 2 of the Protocol, the Government commits to non-diminution of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity as well as to “keep pace” with changes to EU law on six Equality Directives specified in Annex 1 of the Protocol. The Commissions are responsible for monitoring, supervising, reporting, enforcing and advising on the implementation of Article 2.

The Letter

The Committee heard that divergence in EU and UK equality and human rights protections would negatively impact Northern Ireland, which is behind equality law in Great Britain in many aspects, particularly in relation to single equality legislation. EU law has underpinned many of Northern Ireland’s equality laws, strengthening protections for a number of marginalised groups. A failure to keep pace with EU law would mean that equality rights would fall behind those in Ireland, with implications for the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. 

The Commissions have already identified and begun research on issues arising from the Protocol, including the operation of the EU settlement scheme, the potential impact on health policy (including access to all-island services) as a result of regulatory questions such as mutual recognition of professional qualifications, and the possible implications of a loss of EU funding on certain groups in Northern Ireland. While some of these concerns have at least been temporarily or partially assuaged, it remains to be seen whether permanent solutions to these issues can be identified. And the overall ramifications of the Article 2 provisions on a number of issues remain to be seen.

The Committee urges the Government to commit to upholding the Article 2 provisions and the dedicated mechanism for their implementation, whatever happens with the Protocol. This includes working with the Northern Ireland Executive, providing the Commissions with adequate resources to carry out their obligations meaningfully, and fostering public engagement and awareness so that individuals can exercise their rights.

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