2018 Human Rights Lecture: The Impact of Brexit on Rights

Back in May, in the midst of the referendum campaign on the 36th Amendment to the Constitution, I attended the Law Society of Ireland where I delivered the 2018 Annual Human Rights Lecture. I had been asked to speak to the topic of ‘The Impact of Brexit on Rights’ and delivered a lecture that looked at this from three angles: protection of rights in the UK generally after exit day, the protection of rights in Northern Ireland in particular, and the future of a ‘Europe of rights’ in a Brexit context. The full text is available on the Law Society website here, but here’s the conclusion:

Brexit [is] an opportunity if not an imperative to re-make the argument for a Europe of rights and to ensure that the European Union operates as such. It can and should inspire us to make once again, and again, the moral argument for European solidarity, and for a post-nationalist solidarity of love and care across our continent. To do that we need to show that a Europe of rights can work, even as, as Ban Ki-moon has said, the world has “reached a level of human suffering without parallel since the founding of the United Nations”.[1]In this, our European Union, many millions of people live in intense suffering: they cannot school their children in their language and cultural traditions, they cannot express themselves freely without fear of persecution, they cannot walk through life without being subjected to sexual and gender-based violence, they cannot access appropriate healthcare including reproductive healthcare, they have no or unsafe homes, they have diminishing security in later life, they experience daily disregard for their dignity especially in sickness and/or old age, and they see around them at all times the deep and deeply rooted inequalities that set the conditions in which European human rights abuses occur.

Remaking the argument for a Europe of rights, thus, requires us both to articulate clearly the moral case for rights, even when their protection may require us to give up some sovereignty or when a rights violation in question seems far from our own experiences. It requires us to see a violation in Ljubljana and Limavady as equally injurious to our humanity; to care as much for our fellow European in Ghent as in Galway; to see our land as much as that of our European co-denizens as of our scattered, intergenerational diaspora.  

It requires us also to press with urgency for a Europe of rights that goes beyond practical and technical solutions to legal challenges and recommits to the true and rich solidarity that underpins the vision of Europe. That may in turn compel us to move on from a Wilsonian idealism that believes democracy and capitalism are the keys to freedom, peace and prosperity. It may require us to question again the ordoliberalism of the Union and its fiscal and economic structures and policies. It may require us to look with more care and more love on our compatriots and enact our esteem for them with more open borders, more supportive socio-economic models, and more welcoming hearts.  

This is not to say that some of the challenges thrown up by Brexit are not amenable to technical and practical solutions; of course they are. The nature and status of retained legislation in the UK is a matter, partly, of technical legal design. The operation of an all-island system of rights and a near-invisible border between the two jurisdictions can be resolved with a set of technical solutions. But even these technical and practical solutions will not work without an underpinning commitment to rights between all of the relevant stakeholders: the member states, the European Union, and the peoples of Europe and of these islands.

Technocracy ultimately fails because it conceits to divorce the technical from the political; when it comes to rights these two cannot be separated. If the reaction to Brexit is merely to seek technical and practical solutions without attending to the root causes and their potential persistence within the European Union then the setting for further ‘_exits’ will remain undisturbed, and the price may well be far greater than any us care to consider.

In Whatever you Say, Say Nothing, from which I have already quoted, Seamus Heaney closes with words that seem apt for the situation we find ourselves in now:

Competence with pain,

Coherent miseries, a bite and sup,

We hug our little destiny again.

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The Legal Impact of Repealing the 8th Amendment

I have a letter in today’s Irish Times on the potential constitutional impacts of a ‘simple’ repeal of the 8th Amendment. It is a response to Gerry Whyte’s (TCD) opinion editorial in the same paper yesterday, in which he presents what I think a highly unlikely scenario as a near certainty. My letter goes as follows:

Sir, – Prof Gerry Whyte argues that removing the Eighth Amendment from the Constitution may well be interpreted as being intended to remove all constitutional protection from the foetus so that any limitations on abortion in future law would be unconstitutional.

There is another possible outcome from a “simple” repeal – that the foetus might be said to have some constitutional rights that existed before, and go beyond, the right to life inserted in Article 40.3.3 so that these are not disturbed by removal of the Eighth Amendment. However, while both outcomes are possible, realistically speaking neither seems especially probable. One is an extreme interpretation of the removal of Article 40.3.3 and the other would seem to fly in the face of the sovereign will of the people expressed in a vote to remove it.

Furthermore, neither would be consistent with comparative and international best practice. Even in countries where there is no constitutional protection of the foetus, the law recognises a state interest in the preservation of foetal life that allows for regulation of abortion provided any limits that are implemented (such as time limits or “grounds”) do not unduly or disproportionately interfere with the rights of pregnant women. That is consistent with a rights-based approach to the regulation of healthcare in general, and the availability of abortion in particular.

It so happens that it is also consistent with the model abortion law that was drafted and published by a group of 10 feminist lawyers (including me) in 2015 and in respect of which, among other things, we recommended that it might be wise to include a positively worded right in the Constitution to bodily integrity and the right to self-determination in medical matters, making clear that nothing in the Constitution would preclude access to abortion as regulated by law.

That model law and an accompanying short explanation are available for all to read online (“Abortion Law Reform in Ireland: A Model for Change”).

What Prof Whyte’s article, our 2015 proposal, and this response really illustrate is that the question of how we go about reforming the Constitution on the matter of abortion is a complicated one.

What seems vital is that we do not let political expediency override the need for care and attention to be paid to the constitutional text. We did that in 1983, and we all know where that got us. – Yours, etc,

Prof FIONA de LONDRAS,

Birmingham Law School,

University of Birmingham

Edgbaston, Birmingham.

I have written about a potential replacement provision both in the piece linked in the letter and with Mairead Enright in this piece here which was published as Máiréad Enright & Fiona de Londras, “‘Empty Without and Empty Within’: The Unworkability of the Eighth Amendment after Savita Halappanavar and Miss Y” (2014) 20(2) Medico-Legal Journal of Ireland 85

New chapter: In Defence of Judicial Innovation and Constitutional Evolution

BWslider1Last September I spoke at a conference in Dublin City University entitled ‘Judges, Politics and the Irish Constitution‘. The conference brought together dozens of lawyers and political scientists from and in Ireland with an interest in the dynamics of constitutional interpretation, collaboration, evolution, politics and law. The organisers of that conference-Laura Cahillane (of UL), and Tom Hickey and James Gallen (both of DCU)–have now brought a number of the papers presented at the conference together into an edited collection. The book, also entitled Judges, Politics and the Irish Constitution–will be published next year by Manchester University Press. Continue reading New chapter: In Defence of Judicial Innovation and Constitutional Evolution

Reforming Abortion Law in Ireland: A Model

feminists_at_law_logo_0In the second half of 2014 Labour Women established a Commission on Repeal of the 8th Amendment, i.e. the provision of the Irish Constitution that protects “the right to life of the unborn” and has been used to sharply restrict the availability of abortion in Ireland. I was one of the legal experts in the Commission and, in that role, I worked with nine other feminist lawyers: Mairead EnrightVicky ConwayMary DonnellyRuth FletcherNatalie McDonnellSheelagh McGuinnessClaire MurraySinead Ring and Sorcha Ui Chonnachtaigh. We produced a draft structure and content for legislation that aimed to take into account the constraints within which we were working, political realities, and standards outlined in international human rights law. Continue reading Reforming Abortion Law in Ireland: A Model