Brexit and Northern Ireland

This blog was originally published here on September 10. 

Last Monday I found myself in Belfast at a meeting of civic society organisations contemplating what may be coming over the hill for them as we leave the EU.

Groups ranging from Unison and the Humans Rights Consortium, to those from the universities, consumers’, womens’ and childrens’ sectors impressed on me the ramifications of Brexit for Northern Ireland. Indeed, nowhere are the stakes higher.

Particularly vulnerable is the delicate and hard won peace settlement underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement – an intentional peace treaty which has been supported and underpinned in a number of ways by the EU.

Whilst there is a consensus that the Brexit negotiations must not jeopardise the peace process, with its unique and bespoke settlement, it seems this is not being born out in the current wording of the EU Withdrawal Bill (or the Repeal Bill).

At the heart of this is how the devolved nations are being treated in the Bill.

Devolution was at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement. The institutional framework put in place was to ensure Northern Ireland politicians could pass laws which reflected the unique, particular circumstances of a society which had been adversely affected by the conflict.

But Clause 11 and Schedule 2 of the Repeal Bill completely undermine the concept of devolution.It prevents the devolved authorities in Northern Ireland from amending retained EU laws in a way that is not consistent with the UK government’s policy.

In other words, Northern Ireland may no longer to put in place policies that reflect the very special circumstances that exist there. As it stands, Clause 11 will restrict the ability of Stormont to modify retained EU law, instead imposing a unified approach to devolution orchestrated from Whitehall and Westminster.    

This interference and undermining of devolution has ramifications for equality and rights explicitly stated in the Good Friday Agreement, which gives equal rights and protections to citizens of both Northern Ireland and Ireland – including rights for all to Irish citizenship.

Nor is it clear what the status will be for the North/South Ministerial Council and therefore North/South cooperation and the British-Irish Council. The bill as currently stands also raises questions about the status of the Common Travel Area (CTA) – a special border-free zone comprising the UK ,the Isle of Man, the Channel Isles and Ireland   – and formed before membership of EU. And what now of things like the operation of the single energy market, and those other existing contracts that are “whole island”? What about things like sharing of cancer treatment facilities?

The unknowns are greater than the knowns. What is known is that the bill as drafted contains no provision to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process from the negative effects of Brexit. Instead, the bill undermines the agreement through the interference with the devolved functions of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

If this is not enough, the other real injustice is that no one is there in Whitehall and Westminster to really advocate on Northern Ireland’s behalf. The DUP has publically said very little, which is unsurprising given its agreement with the current government. Sinn Fein refuses to come to Westminster, and Stormont has not met since January.

This vacuum means that whilst some – including Barnier – have expressed concerns, there is no consistent stream of parliamentarians who have this at the front of their minds.

The Repeal Bill Alliance has tried to move forward some of the connecting, networking, and advocacy, but as civil society organisations we are not in the chamber in the House of Commons for those critical debates during the Second Reading. While we have created a space and platform for civil society voices from Northern Ireland to be heard and to collaborate with others, it cannot replace the role of legislators in the UK parliament.

As we embark on the next step of Second Reading and beyond, it is hoped that the special circumstances of Northern Ireland and its people will be at the front of all politicians’ minds. The Repeal Bill Alliance will endeavour to help and support the growing civic groups that are determined to be heard. And we know that no MP, of any persuasion, would want to have as their legacy that they were part of a process that undermined the peace in Northern Ireland.

Malene Bratlie