What does Brexit mean for Irish Travellers?

UK has BREXited – What does this mean for Irish Travellers?

By Davie Donaldson

The UK has officially BREXited the European Union – but what does this mean for Irish Travellers?

The news has been difficult to follow, vague and, (as usual) not representative of the Traveller perspective. So, here’s my shot at filling in the gaps…

I’ll start off by saying, January 31st  marked the UK’s flag being lowered in Brussels… but the UK hasn’t actually ‘left’ yet, it’s actually in a transition period, a kind of standstill in current arrangements until December 31st. Politicians will use this time to discuss trade deals and the wider relationship between the EU and UK post-Brexit.

Of course, this means we still can’t be one hundred per cent sure how Travellers will be affected once the UK leaves Europe completely – but we have some pretty good indications.

To keep it simple and digestible, I’ve split this into key impacts we might see for Irish Travellers after Brexit.

Will it still be easy to travel and work in the UK?

Irish Travellers have been travelling in Britain since at least the 12th century; but more recently this has relied upon the EU single market. The single market has allowed Irish citizens to move freely and work within the UK, as well as the wider European Union. Allowing many Traveller families to travel between Ireland and the UK for seasonal work and shifting patterns. The UK’s departure from the EU means they will no longer be part of the single market – therefore freedom of movement will cease. Instead, the UK government want to introduce a points-based system, that ensures only high-skilled workers come to the UK from Europe after Brexit. This would cause issues for many Irish Travellers who come to the UK to do low-skilled, mostly self-employed work.

However, there may be a saving grace in negotiations. Under the Common Travel Area (CTA), Irish and UK citizens can already move freely between countries and access specific rights – separate to EU agreements. This arrangement allows Irish citizens to travel, live and study in the UK. It also allows Irish citizens to work in the UK without an employment permit, even if you’re self-employed. Both the Government of Ireland and the UK Government have committed to keeping the CTA.

In saying this, despite Ireland and the United Kingdom formalising the pre-existing Common Travel Area – it isn’t yet legally binding.  So, in short, this summer you’ll be able to travel freely with a British or Irish passport. It’s also very likely that this will not change in 2021 – but until the CTA is backed by law we can’t say for certain.

Will there be a Border to Northern Ireland?

Brexit means Northern Ireland is leaving the EU too so it’s highly likely checks will be required along the Irish Border; different trade rules applying north and south after Brexit. In a practical sense this could mean requiring paperwork when commuting between NI and the Republic. However, neither the UK nor Ireland wants the return of a physical border or checks, because it could risk the Northern Ireland peace process and the 1998 Belfast Agreement.  So, they’ve come up with ‘The Backstop’. This is basically an insurance policy that the UK and EU have agreed to avoid a ‘hard border’ in a future trade deal. Though we’re not quite sure how this will look as it’s heavily dependent on negotiation talks between now and December.  In saying this, Irish citizenship may play a role as the Chief Commissioner at the NI Human Rights Commission, Les Allamby advised in an interview with the BBC: “Those people [Non-Irish living in the south and working in north] will have to watch very carefully to see what arrangements are put in place because we don’t know at this stage how they will be affected by the UK leaving the EU completely after the transition period.”  As such nobody’s sure what the border with Northern Ireland will look like after Brexit. However, we can be certain it’ll be one of the major issues of negotiation going forward.

Will it be harder to get Residency in the UK?

The Traveller Movement estimates around 100,000 Irish Travellers are resident in the UK (2017) But, a significant amount of them are not British citizens by descent. It’s been found that landlords are allegedly less likely to rent to potential tenants who do not have a British passport, even if they have the right to live in the UK – forcing many Irish Travellers to rely upon EU legal frameworks to argue their case. This caused many NGO’s and Traveller rights campaigners concern around how Irish Travellers may be treated post-Brexit when trying to rent from British landlords.

Yvonne MacNamara, Chief Executive of the Traveller Movement, is among those concerned. Talking at the wake of Brexit in 2017, she said, “Unless the government acts to clarify and guarantee the rights of Irish citizens, it is not hard to imagine how Irish Travellers could be subject to greater levels of prejudice and discrimination than they already face.” A report from the Traveller Movement recommended the introduction of a general law that Irish citizens should be treated equally with British citizens; or have an exemption for Irish people at immigration control.

However, this draws again on the CTA and the fact that it isn’t yet law. Therefore, increasing discussion on the importance of the CTA for both the UK and Irish Government may see the legal guarantee of residency rights for Irish citizens soon. Whilst much of this relies on legal discussion and negotiation post-Brexit, we can’t overlook the elephant in the room.

Discrimination plays a significant part in the difficulties Irish Travellers already face gaining residency in the UK. So really the question should be will Brexit ambiguity allow people to embolden their discrimination against Travellers? I guess only time will tell – but having legal rights to residency would at least give Travellers tools to fight their case.

Will Human Rights of Travellers be impacted?

Throughout Brexit, many Traveller activists have feared rhetoric surrounding scrapping of Human Rights protections in the UK. One of the main legal frameworks is the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), an international treaty the UK signed in 1950. Those who signed up committed to certain fundamental rights, such as the right to a fair trial and the right to freedom of expression. These were enhanced by the Human Rights Act (HRA) which ensured public authorities in the UK had to uphold those same rights, and if they didn’t, a person could bring a claim to a UK court, without having the fees of Strasburg.

Brexit will have no direct impact on the UK’s obligations under the ECHR – however it will open the door to the UK‘re-structuring’ their human rights legislations, specifically the Human Rights Act.

This may severely affect Irish Travellers in the UK, with Human Rights Watch warning; ‘significant concerns remain about how human rights will be protected after Brexit, notably around workers’ rights, anti-discrimination protections, and privacy rights based on EU law.’ Therefore, the right to justice if discriminated against, to freely travel, and workers’ rights – cannot be taken for granted in a post-Brexit UK. In saying this, Human rights are likely to play a significant role in any future agreement on security cooperation with the EU. So, if the UK hopes to maintain a withdrawal agreement – they’ll need to evidence continued support for the principles set out in the ECHR.

So, these are the key issues and the Brexit situation is important to us all. But hey, politics are unpredictable so we can’t be sure where we’ll be this time next year!

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