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NIexit will reduce protections

Northern Ireland will cut protections for the environment and labour, posing difficulties for the South too.

Brexit brings a threat of the North accelerating in a race to the bottom in terms of the environment and employment, cutting costs in order to get economic advantage. In the face of this, much depends on when or if Devolution is reinstated.

There is a particular concern on environmental matters because the EU has had a determining impact on the North’s environmental legislation. Even with EU membership, there is concern at a systemic failure to enforce environmental legislation.

Sand has been dredged from Lough Neagh for years, without any planning process being applied. Currently about 1.5m tonnes per year is extracted. The Lough is the largest fresh-water lake in Ireland or Britain. It is a Special Protection Area. It is a Ramsar site, that is recognised as a wetland of international importance. Around 100,000 wild birds winter on and near it. It is one of only five lakes in the world where pollan are found.

In June last year the North’s Court of Appeal allowed an appeal from Friends of the Earth against former Environment Minister Mark H Durkan’s decision not to order an immediate halt to the dredging. However, the Department of Infrastructure has said it is “not expedient” to stop dredging, which continues.

In another regulatory failure, approximately one million tonnes of assorted waste was illegally dumped on a site at Mobuoy Road, Derry. Remediation will cost at least £20m (€22.4m), but may cost 12 times as much. The dump is beside the River Faughan, which provides drinking water for Derry City.

Friends of the Earth has lodged a complaint with the European Commission against the North for systemic failure to enforce planning and environmental laws. The complaint is slowly making its way through the process.

The North, like the rest of the UK, has no third-party right of appeal against planning decisions: developers have a right of appeal. That is contributing to pressures to restrict the right of appeal in the South.

With this being the current situation, the North’s environmentalists are worried about developments after Brexit.

They are particularly worried about the loss of the Habitats Directive. This has been key to their successes: in particular, their two biggest. These were the A5, the North’s biggest-ever road project, which was halted after a court challenge: and the court action on the Lough Neagh dredging. The Habitats Directive is particularly important because it contains the precautionary principle.

Politically, there is no great will to protect the environment. The two dominant parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, have shown little commitment. Famously the first measure the Paisley/McGuinness devolved administration introduced was a relaxation on the former Northern Ireland Minister’s restrictions on one-off housing. In 2008 Arlene Foster as Environment Minister rejected a report ‘Review of Environmental Governance. One of the recommendations was for an independent environmental protection agency, and a limited third party right of appeal. Former DUP Environment Minister Sammy Wilson has said people would “look back at this whole climate change debate and ask ourselves how on Earth were we ever conned into spending the billions of pounds” on policy changes. Sinn Féin has not denied climate change, but has been the main party pushing the A5 project. The party’s attitude to the environment is typically ad hoc.

This is more worrying because the North’s environmentalists are not a major lobby group. The Assembly elected last year contains only two Greens, from 90 members. Only a handful of others have any significant interest in environmental matters.

The effects on workers’ rights will partly depend on when or if devolution is restored. Certainly, trade unionists are seen as a better – organised lobby than environmentalists.

They have had certain limited successes. The Executive parties rejected introducing proposed legislation further restricting the right to strike being introduced by the UK government. It did not follow the British parliament in extending the time limit for the right to claim unfair dismissal.

On the other side, Northern wages are lower. The median weekly wage is £501 (€562.50), in contrast to €734.60 in South. The minimum wage, which is UK-wide, is £7.83 (€8.79) and only comes into operation at 25. In the South it is €9.55.

It seems Northern Ireland is facing into a future without the threshold protections of for example the EU Working Time Directive 2003 which requires a minimum of four weeks paid holidays annually and a maximum 48-hour working week unless a worker individually consents; of the The Parental Leave Directive 2010 which prescribes four months of unpaid leave for parents to care for children before they turn eight years old, and of the Pregnant Workers Directive 1992 which creates a right for mothers to a minimum of 14 weeks paid leave to care for children.

There will be continued pressure to reduce wages and protections. That will be strengthened by the tendency not to let a good crisis go by without seizing the chance to cut pay and conditions.

Anton McCabe