Women in Northern Ireland are greatly underrepresented in public and political life. This was clearly evident in the lead up to the Brexit referendum and remains a worrying issue in the current Brexit negotiations. Underrepresentation in political negotiations and decision-making, alongside several other areas lacking in gender parity such as access to education, training, work, affordable childcare and more, highlight the profoundly negative impact Brexit is set to have on women in Northern Ireland. This is compounded with the political instability creating several barriers to women having their voices heard. Many areas of women’s human rights have yet to be achieved, and Brexit has added a new threat to existing, hard-fought rights women currently have. Northern Ireland faces unique constitutional complexities meaning Brexit presents a unique threat to this region . With women’s voices being largely absent from negotiations, at a local, national and EU level, it is necessary to analyse the unique and disproportionate impact Brexit will have on the women of Northern Ireland.
Women’s Rights Achieved Through EU Membership
Many of the rights we enjoy today have come through membership of the EU over the past four decades; particularly in areas of economic activity and employment law. For women, there are great concerns that Brexit will erode many of these protections. Some of these protections include:
- Equality between men and women,
- The right to equal pay for equal work,
- Protection against discrimination on the ground of pregnancy and maternity,
- Introducing measures to provide specific advantages to the underrepresented gender,
- Prohibition of discriminations on the grounds of sex,
- Introduction of paid holidays.
Furthermore, the EU recognises the need for wide-spread structural change to deal with systematic gender discrimination through their commitment to Gender Mainstreaming and the Gender Recast Directive 2006. The Gender Recast Directive covers a range of areas including access to employment, promotion, vocational training schemes and working conditions to ensure the rights of women are considered central to decision making. The Gender Mainstreaming approach involves five main priority areas:
- Increase women’s participation in the labour market,
- Reduce the gender pay gap, pension gap and levels of poverty women face,
- Address gender disparity in decision making and promote greater representation of women in public life across a range of sectors,
- Combat gender-based violence and support victims,
- Combat gender equality beyond the EU and advocate for women’s rights across the world.
Other areas of EU legislation, representation and funding that are relevant to the protection and enhancement of women’s rights and participation include the European Protection order, which is significant in recognising women’s rights as they cross the border; the Rural Development Programme, which NIRWN highlight as significant given historic government underinvestment in rural women; the European Social Fund, which is important to increasing women’s access to the workforce; the European Parliamentary Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, alongside various EU funding streams that support the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland.
What Next for Women’s Rights Post-Brexit?
It is deeply concerning that no guarantees have been made to protect, or enhance, the rights mentioned above post-Brexit. The previous Withdrawal Agreement set forward, that had minimal human rights protections, has been rejected by the current Prime Minister and it is unclear if any deal will be reached for UK withdrawal from the EU before the October 31st deadline. Based on previous comments from the UK government, alongside election manifestos and public pledges, there are some worrying insights into the future of women’s rights in Northern Ireland.
- EU Charter of Fundamental Rights
One of the most concerning pledges of the UK government has been to remove the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights from all applications in UK law and judiciary systems. Whilst the UK government would still be required to abide by the European Convention of Human Rights, the removal of the EU Charter is deeply worrying as it has a much broader level of protection for human rights. Articles relevant to women in Northern Ireland include, but are not limited to, Article 20 on the right to equality before law; Article 21 which prohibits discrimination; Article 23 on the right to equality between men and women; Article 34 on the right to social security (which is significant in cases of maternity pay) and Article 35 on the right to healthcare.
- Existing EU Law – Court of Justice of the European Union
Future case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) will no longer be binding in UK courts post-Brexit. Any existing CJEU laws from before Brexit will still be binding, however, these can now be overturned in future cases in UK courts and a departure from current jurisprudence may lead to a divergence on human rights standards on either side of the border in Northern Ireland. As EU human rights instruments will be seen as invalid post-Brexit, it will be difficult to enforce human rights through the courts or hold UK government failures to account in courts outside of the UK.
- Human Rights Act 1998
In the lead up to the Brexit referendum, many calls were made to repeal or replace the UK Human Rights Act post-Brexit. Since the 2016 referendum, the UK Government has failed to provide commitments that it will not repeal or replace the Human Rights Act. Many are deeply concerned with the impact this, and the removal of the EU Charter, will have on human rights. The EU human rights framework is much more robust than the UK Human Rights Act, however, the removal of both the Human Rights Act and the EU Charter will make it much more difficult for people to access their rights through the courts, as the ECHR is nowhere near as broad or strong as a standalone human rights framework.
- Good Friday Agreement
There have been worrying reinterpretations of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement by the current Prime Minister, in a vastly different approach to previous UK Governments, with EU officials accusing Prime Minister Johnson of reneging on pledges to uphold the agreement. With Northern Ireland still the crux of disagreements on how the UK should leave the UK, and ongoing political instability growing as a concern, it is essential to point out the importance of avoiding a divergence of rights on either side of the border. For example, areas of protections such as violence against women, or child maintenance payments, rely on EU wide measures to ensure the legal systems on the island of Ireland are coordinated to protect vulnerable people through the criminal justice and family law systems. This is essential to ensure that people cannot avoid the repercussions of violence against women, or refusing to pay child maintenance, by simply crossing the border. All aspects of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement need to be protected and implemented; including a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland where specific focus can be given to the rights of women.
- Missed Opportunities: Current EU Work on Rights
There are many missed future opportunities for the enhancement of rights that would benefit the lives of women in Northern Ireland. For example, as highlighted by the Human rights Consortium, the EU has also sought to extend parental rights to leave and encourage better childcare support for families with the strategic aim of reducing the gender pay gap and advancing women’s rights more generally. Furthermore, as NIRWN have highlighted, there is a new, ongoing consultation of trade unions and employers launched at EU level focusing on a new package of rights to improve work-life balance, including proposals for carers’ leave, flexible working and stronger protections from dismissal for new mothers. It is worth nothing that the EU did not recognise caring work as an economic activity, which meant carers did not have the same equal status of those who were workers, self-employed or seeking residency under the freedom of movement within EU member states. As women undertake the majority of caring responsibilities in Northern Ireland, they were disproportionately impacted by this, arguably discriminatory, approach. With uncertainty of what will happen to the customs union and the freedom of movement across the EU, it is unlikely caring responsibilities, and the rights associated with them, will be improved or advocated for post-Brexit.
It is evident that women in Northern Ireland are in line to face the brunt of the impact of Brexit. The UK Women’s Budget Group maintains that women will be adversely impacted by the economic impacts of Brexit. This can only get worse for the women of Northern Ireland, who have greatly suffered from the past decade of austerity and are deeply concerned about the impact of welfare reform and future austerity on gender equality. The economic consequences of Brexit are set to have disproportionately negative impacts on rural women, disabled women, LGBTQ+ women, women of colour, women living on the border, migrant women and more as they lose many human rights protections and funding streams supporting their participation and empowerment.
Women in Northern Ireland are already facing great barriers due to political instability, an arguably failed peace process, a collapsed Assembly, the lack of implementation of the UNSCR 1325, an outdated Northern Ireland Gender Strategy, unprecedented levels of poverty and having limited representation in Brexit negotiations. With all the hard fought women’s rights protections won at an EU level now at risk, and many human rights still failing to have been implemented at all, there are many reasons to be deeply concerned about the impact of Brexit on the women on Northern Ireland.
Written by Rachel Powell – Women’s Sector Lobbyist
 Human Rights Consortium Rights at Risk Report, p.32
 The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights
 Article 119 Treaty establishing the European Economic Community
 This is still an issue in Northern Ireland today: ECNI, Expecting Equality: A Formal Investigation into the Treatment of Pregnant Workers and mothers in Northern Ireland workplaces 2016
 EU Charter of Fundamental Rights
 Sex and other grounds for discrimination are covered in Article 21, EU Charter of Fundamental Rights
 Human Rights Consortium Rights at Risk Report, p.75
 A comparison of the breadth of the EU Charter and the ECHR can be found in the Human Rights Consortium Rights at Risk Report, p.26-27
 Rankin, J., The Guardian, ‘https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/sep/08/johnson-has-reneged-on-good-friday-agreement-vows-says-eu’, Sep. 2019
 Human Rights Consortium, Rights at Risk Report, p.122
 Directive 2010/18/EU implementing the revised Framework Agreement on parental leave (8
 European Platform for Investing in Children – https://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=1246&langId=
 UK Women’s Budget Group: https://wbg.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/brexit-pre-budget-nov-2017-final.pdf
 Women’s Regional Consortium Report – Impact of Ongoing Austerity: Women’s Perspectives: http://www.womensregionalconsortiumni.org.uk/sites/default/files/Impact%20of%20Ongoing%20Austerity%20Women%27s%20Perspectives.pdf, March, 2019