Threats to the peace in Northern Ireland, to devolution, to employment rights and human rights – these were just some of the dire concerns discussed as Brexit dominated yesterday afternoon’s session of national delegate conference in Brighton.
But one positive theme of the debates was reflected by the NEC’s James Anthony (above).
“UNISON will be there in the interests of all of its members,” he said.
“Our Brexit brings the country together, it gives public services a fair deal, it promotes equality and human rights, it supports all of our nations and regions in their specific needs.”
A handful of motions outlined the challenges ahead as the government negotiates the EU exit.
A composite motion on workers’ rights asserted that there was a “real danger” that protections derived from EU law – including health and safety, anti-discrimination and agency worker rights – could be lost or watered down through the Great Repeal Bill and the negotiation of new trade deals.
Paul Gilroy of the NEC said: “We can’t leave the protection of workers’ rights to the Tories. The risk is how easy it could be for many hard-fought protections to be scrapped.”
He added that current employment rights emanating from the European Court of Justice could also become “irrelevant” after Brexit, if the government wasn’t kept in check.
Linda Hobson of Northern region, which is set to lose hundreds of millions of pounds in European regional development grants, said that UNISON has a “vital role” during the passage of the repeal bill, “to ensure that each piece of it is scrutinised effectively, to protect our workers’ rights.”
To that end, conference called on the NEC to ensure that UNISON has a key “stakeholder” role in the Brexit negotiations.
Many passionate speakers voiced their concern that a so-called hard Brexit – with the potential incendiary return of a border across the island of Ireland – and the Tory Party’s attempted deal with the DUP could both put the Northern Ireland peace process “in deep jeopardy”.
Vice president Margaret McKee, who is from Northern Ireland, said: “How can we trust this coalition of chaos to take the lead in the Brexit negotiations? Just two parties on behalf of all of the UK. A minority Tory party propped up by the DUP poses too many risks.”
While the UK government is the supposed guardian of the Good Friday Agreement, the Tories are not “playing it straight,” she said.
The NEC will now spearhead a campaign aimed at making protection of the Northern Ireland peace agreement a negotiating priority within the EU exit negotiations.
Sinead Liddy (above) of the national young members’ forum introduced an amendment to the motion A fair deal for workers and public services, which underlines the fact that “young people in particular will have to live longest with the consequence of exiting the EU, which will bring enormous change to the employment and social landscape of the UK for generations to come.”
The Great Repeal Bill – protecting devolution addressed the fact that the government has “consistently shown a disregard” for the views of the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland when considering the details of leaving the EU.
Particularly, Westminster may seek to implement a range of EU law relating to areas that are currently within the remit of the devolved legislatures and administrations, or change existing EU laws without their consent, the motion warned.
Introducing it, Eoin Stewart from Northern Ireland said it was essential that the UK government not be allowed to “claw back” existing devolved powers.
Delegates also heard about the rise in hate crime sine the EU referendum, and vowed to continue campaigning against any form of racial violence.