Brexit – what certainty will there be on disability rights?

Brexit, the term coined for the potential or hypothetical departure of the United Kingdom from the EU, is now a very real threat. The triggering of Article 50 means it’s supposedly happening, no matter what form of deal is struck on the 29th March 2019. More than 30 million people cast their vote in the referendum 2 years ago with an overall turnout of about 70%. Meaning 30% of those that had a vote did not vote. With the leave campaign winning by a gap of only a few percent anything literally could have happened if more people voted, we’ll never really know, and we can’t debate that now here in Northern Ireland. All we know is that article 50 was officially triggered on 29th March 2017, and there is now just under nine months for a final deal to be struck, despite the fact the majority of us here in Northern Ireland voted to remain.

But, what does this mean for Northern Ireland? What does Brexit mean if you are disabled?
Recently published statistics from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency shows that slightly under 1 in 5 of people who are work aged have a disability in Northern Ireland. (NI Statistics and Research Agency (31 August 2016): ‘Quarterly Supplement to the Labour Market Report: April – June 2016’, page 2. Available at: ) Disability and equality legislation within Great Britain has been addressed through the existence of the Equality Act 2010, but this does not apply to Northern Ireland. This results in a much lesser support mechanism in place for those people who are disabled in Northern Ireland.

The problem with Northern Ireland may be its politics, its divisive nature and deadlock of democracy. But what has this power struggle done, and what will this power struggle continue to do for people with disabilities living in Northern Ireland post-Brexit.

We do not have the Equality Act legislation in place like that of Great Britain, all we have is the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 and the Special Needs & Disability (NI) Order 2005. Because of this Brexit will affect us in a much more unique way and this needs to be considered. Having law in place that simply just stops employers being discriminatory to jobseekers and employers with disabilities is not enough and there is nothing there to protect us in the event of Brexit. Brexit uncertainty is already happened, we’re feeling it now.

In the absence of a single Equality Act for Northern Ireland, key equality protection comes from the Court of Justice in the EU, including protections from the carers of disabled people. This puts Northern Ireland in an extremely precarious position as the decision for the UK to withdraw from the EU will have extreme ramifications. The EU has had an important supporting role in providing The European Disability Forum funded by the EU facilitating disability groups across Europe to work together and make decisions on European-wide disabled activism and fight for the rights of disabled people across Europe. Brexit clearly poses an unprecedented risk to the human rights of those based in Northern Ireland and we need to tackle it.

Disability Action have made it clear that there should be no retrogression or lowering of rights and protections currently available under EU law. The funding for already existing programmes should be protected and new sources of funding should be identified for programmes under EU funds. Most importantly disabled people and their organisations should be fully involved in all Brexit decision making.

The EU Withdrawal Bill confirms that EU law up until exit day will retain its status, however it is unclear that how, in the aftermath of leaving the EU, the courts will interpret the different disability laws in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The Courts of Justice in European Union (CJEU), are the highest court in Europe. They are judicial responsibility for members of the European Union who are signed up. They and the European Court of Human Rights have in past been responsible for legislation changes allowing for key human rights issues to be addressed within Northern Ireland. There is currently the situation whereby any ruling of the CJEU determining the interpretation of a directive automatically applies across all the UK, under the principle of supremacy, including Northern Ireland. If this principle no longer exists, disability discrimination law in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK could fall out of step leaving many disabled people with little or no support, recognition or protection of basic human rights.

The prospect of a no-deal outcome has already led to the National Health Service jumping to the stockpiling of important medication. It may be doing this as a precautionary measure, but will they have enough? Will their forecasts of what is needed be right? If they get the answer wrong, then the future for all of us who desperately need prescription medication like insulin etc, we could be in a very bad situation. How much more guess work must happen before it is realised that Brexit was a bad idea? No guessing games here, Brexit is BAD.

A game of poker is being played with the lives of disabled people and it needs to stop, particularly when there’s potentially nothing out there to protect us or stop what is happening from happening.

Richard Moorhead
NUS-USI Disabled Students Officer

Leave a Reply