Brexit, Devolution and Civil Society

Brexit, Devolution and Civil Society Conference, Belfast, 2nd & 3rd May 2019

This two day event was aimed at providing a unique opportunity for civil society organizations from across the four regions of the UK to reflect on the impact of Brexit in each jurisdiction, map out commonalities, and collaborate on shared and individual responses.

Throughout the event, aspects such as legal and constitutional impacts of Brexit for devolution, the future of human rights, and equality protections across the devolved regions, post Brexit funding opportunities and challenges, and consideration of how civil society might continue to work with each other, with and within Europe after Brexit, were considered.
The conference included speakers and delegates from across the UK, bringing civil society organizations from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England, as well as the Republic of Ireland together to discuss a broad range of Brexit related topics. 

The conference was funded by The Legal Education Foundation and organized collaboratively by The Wales Civil Society Forum, The Civil Society Brexit Project In Scotland, and The Humans Rights Consortium In Northern Ireland.

The event consisted of panel discussions, round tables, and networking opportunities. 
After a short introduction and scene setting, the first panel discussed devolution and Brexit.  A panel of expert speakers (Professor Dan Wincott from Cardiff University, Wales Governance Centre; Professor Christopher McCrudden from Queen’s University, Northern Ireland, Human Rights and Equality Law; and Professor Tobias Lock from Maynooth University, Ireland, Civil Society Brexit Project) on what Brexit means for devolution and constitutional change.  Issues highlighted included: human rights and equality, constitutions of the UK and the four nations, constitutional ignorance and illiteracy, how to listen to all voices and work together, funding, citizen’s rights, and the rise of populism and its social impacts, as well as the role of devolution. 

Panel 2 discussed political perspectives on Brexit and civil society.  The panelists were Jeremy Miles AM, Council General for Wales and Brexit Minister; Joanna Cherry QC MP, and Claire Hanna MLA.  Topics discussed included human rights, citizen’s assemblies, a serious democratic deficit highlighted by devolved nations being ignored during Brexit conversations, the kind of country we want it to be, opportunities to learn from the Brexit referendum, impact on life and businesses, civic society involvement, the need for reform, sustainability of current constitutional setup, the challenges of Brexit in Ireland/Northern Ireland, the discussion of Brexit at the expense of other important topics both national and international, the Good Friday Agreement, personal national identity and the ability to choose, and toxicity in elections.

The Q&A discussed the individual needs/attitudes of devolved nations regarding various topics such as immigration, the feasibility of trusting the UK government to protect human rights going forward, unresolved issues in the event of a cancelled Brexit, the continued feasibility of devolution, loss of trust in politicians, the media’s role and influence, devolved media getting news from British media and so influence the conversation, how is a lack of reasoned discussion within the media holding us back, and regardless of Brexit, there is a continuous common interest and need for a forum for the British Isles.

The afternoon session saw thematic Round table discussions on the impact of Brexit on funding, Health and Social Care, Human Rights structures and Women. A particular focus were questions such as what challenges do we face, what opportunities to protect existing rights, and how can Civil Society work together on all of these issues. 

The second day started with panel 3 discussion on Citizenship and Brexit. The panellists were Jen Ang from JustRight Scotland, Wiard Sterk from the 3 million, and Brian Gormally from the Committee on the Administration of Justice. It was discussed that there are different definitions, attitudes and approaches to citizenship across the four Nations, however immigration remains a reserved matter. This highlighted a discrepancy between powers and needs of the devolved Nations. 

Panel 4 discussed Civil Society post Brexit – looking forward. The panellists were Charles Whitmore from the Wales Civil Society Forum on Brexit, Dr Rachel Minto from the Wales Governance Centre and Dr Paul Copeland QMUL, Jane Thomas from the Brexit Civil Society Alliance England, Patricia McKeown from UNISON, and Michael Farrell, a Solicitor from the Republic of Ireland. This discussion focussed on shared values beyond Brexit, that glue all of us together and how Civil Society can influence and create a better future, in collaboration and co-production. The issues of EU funding, the risk of loss or reduction of funding and a changing landscape were also addressed. 

At the end, there was an unconference, with plenty of networking time. 

Summary points:

  • Need for action to ensure Civil Society voices are heard. 
  • Some differences between devolved Nations, but lots of commonality.
  • The major challenge of a lack of capacity and resources, to address all issues, in an increasingly challenging funding environment. 
  • Opportunities for co-production and collaboration, sharing resources and knowledge. 
  • A huge impact on Human Rights, especially in Equalities.
  • Environment and Climate Change as pressing matters, requiring more urgency and action. 
  • Social Cohesion & reconciliation, bridging the divide. 
  •  Need for continued collaboration across the four Nations.
  • An opportunity to make better use of Academia and Grassroots support.
  • Collaboration and amplification of messages.

Overall, this was a very interesting conference, bringing together a lot of experts, as well as a variety of Civil Society participants. I managed to mention rural issues several times throughout the conference and also highlighted our recent Brexit report and other pieces of work. During one of the panel discussions, I addressed a need for Rural Voices to be heard and considered more, as well as the need for more local democracy, Joanna Cherry QC MP responded that there is a deficit in how devolved powers are currently not devolved down enough into the local areas or to the people (very much acknowledging our work on local democracy) and that it isn’t good enough to replace Westminster, which is far away, with Edinburgh, which is still far away for many people in Scotland. She mentioned the two elephants in the room and listed them as land reform and local government areas being too large to function properly for rural Scotland and that there was a lot of change needed. She was also very keen on our Brexit report, and I gave her a hard copy to take away. 

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