Brian Gormally is director of the Northern Ireland Justice Administration Committee. An expert in human rights, he has participated in and knows first-hand the peace processes in South Africa, Israel and Palestine, the Basque Country, Italy and Colombia. He has also worked with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. He visited Barcelona to give a talk at La Caixa?s Macaya Palace.
What could happen now that the UK has left the European Union?
At the moment we have the transition period for the UK to adapt to the new situation and everything will stay the same. The effects of Brexit won?t be noticeable until a year from now, when the UK will have to really face its exit from Europe.
And what will it mean for Northern Ireland?
There are specially designed agreements to leave Northern Ireland closely aligned with European Union regulations; to prevent it from becoming a hard border separating the island of Ireland. In fact, this point has been at the centre of the negotiations since the beginning.
And why is that?
The reason, first of all, is that it is very difficult to return to a regulated border. Thousands cross the border every day. It is very difficult to control. During the conflict, the British army did it by having forty-five check points at the border. Any move to re-regulate the border would not only be financially devastating, but would also move the Irish peace process backwards.
There is no border now, just different coloured road signs on the road. That?s an example of the work done over these years. And that more clearly affects the people who want a united Ireland, but also everyone in general. We haven?t resolved all our conflicts. The peace process is twenty years old. As a member of a human rights organisation I personally think that, in terms of equity, not everything has been done properly and the Brexit process has raised other issues.
Equality between British and Irish citizens. That is a basic principle of the peace agreement. In fact, it is a birthright to be able to identify yourself as British, Irish or both. And also have the corresponding passport. With the two states within the European Union, the rights are very similar, but now British citizens will leave the European Union. And those with Irish citizenship, even if they live in Northern Ireland (a British territory), will continue to be EU citizens, with the right to freedom of movement, for example. This will introduce a divide between Irish and British citizens in terms of rights. Those who devised Brexit did not think much about the conflict in Northern Ireland... they never think about Northern Ireland!
But didn?t the conflict capture much of the attention of British politicians over thirty years?
During the conflict, yes. There were bombs in England. But once the peace process began, it was forgotten. Now it is believed to be over. What has been very interesting is that Northern Ireland has been under the watchful eye of the world for three years due to Brexit. The European Union has recognised the importance of the peace process. In fact, the European Union has invested heavily in the Irish peace process, in special programmes for reconciliation and economic development in the region.
Has Brexit polarised British society?
There is a general polarisation. We have to see what Brexit is about. As an organisation that defends human rights, we positioned ourselves in favour of staying in Europe. Not because we necessarily think the European Union is exemplary in terms of human rights... but because we?re sure we will lose protection by leaving the European Union. Europe also has many negative things. Migrants dying in the Mediterranean Sea, for example. What worries us is the nature of the Brexit campaign. It has elements of racism and is led by the more right-wing Conservatives and, obviously, the Ukip, now known as the Brexit Party. Brexit has created a divide, not only because people have differing views, but because the campaign has been against solidarity, blames immigration, and has great nostalgia for the British Empire’s past.
Is this campaign a reflection of British society?
No! It?s a very diverse society and many of the big cities voted to stay in the European Union.
The Scots voted to stay in the European Union, as did Northern Ireland.
The constitutional position between Scotland and Northern Ireland is different, because one of the peace agreements was to give the Irish a right to self-determination. This point specifieds that for now Northern Ireland is staying within the United Kingdom because there is a majority who want it. However, it also states that if there is a majority wishing to join the Republic of Ireland in the future, then the British government would hold a referendum. It would be held in Northern Ireland, but the south would need to agree to it as well. The British government would grant it to the North and the Irish government to the South. This is the position, and therefore Northern Ireland has the right to leave the UK if a majority of the people who live there want it. They have the right to stay in the UK or to join the Republic of Ireland... These are the two options, but there is no universal right to self-determination. Scotland is larger and has historically been a nation, but by law it has no right to leave the United Kingdom. This is a problem that will only be solved politically.