Some in Northern Ireland still want a Brexit problem
Taking North out of EU does not breach Belfast Agreement and it is highly irresponsible to claim otherwise
Sinn Féin’s new Northern leader Michelle O’Neill with the party’s president Gerry Adams: Last Saturday, Mr Adams told a Sinn Féin conference that Brexit is a “hostile action” that would “destroy the Good Friday Agreement”. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Pro-Remain Northern Ireland has just had all its legal fears about Brexit put to rest. So why the strange lack of jubilation? There should at least be expressions of relief: “phew, the Belfast Agreement will not be breached in any way”, that sort of thing. Yet there is no sign of it. It is almost as if some people want there to be a problem.
The good news was delivered on Tuesday by the UK’s supreme court. It found against the British government, which must now hold a vote in the House of Commons on triggering article 50 – the mechanism for leaving the EU.
But the court also threw out a bundle of pro-Remain arguments from Belfast, on their own merits and in light of the article 50 ruling, creating a watertight, double defeat for the original plaintiffs.
Two cases against Brexit were brought to Belfast High Court last September, one by a victims campaigner and the other by a group of human rights organisations and Stormont politicians, including the leaders of the SDLP, Greens and Alliance, plus a Sinn Féin former minister.
A premise of each case was that taking Northern Ireland out of the EU would breach the Belfast Agreement. The high court heard both cases together and rejected them on every point.
It is worth a quick run-through of those points to demonstrate how comprehensively a breach has been debunked.
The plaintiffs claimed the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is being changed without the population’s permission, contrary to the consent principle underpinning the entire peace process.
They said the nine mentions of the EU in the agreement mean membership is “inextricably woven” into the law enacting it.
Not only should parliament have a vote, they argued, but Stormont and the other devolved executives should have a veto.
The judge disagreed, finding that all mentions of the EU in the agreement are incidental, EU membership is not devolved so Stormont’s input is not required, and the consent principle applies specifically to leaving the UK.
Everyone then announced their wish to appeal, causing Northern Ireland’s attorney general John Larkin to step in and refer four key points up to the supreme court.
Larkin concurred that Brexit will not breach the agreement but felt this deserved a conclusive verdict from the highest court in the land.
The supreme court has now unanimously endorsed the Belfast ruling, without caveat. Even the three judge who dissented on article 50 agreed with their colleagues on all matters relating to Northern Ireland. Furthermore, because there will now be a UK parliament vote on article 50, the court added that nothing about Northern Ireland’s removal from Europe breaches any law, treaty or part of the constitution.
None of this means political concerns about Brexit are irrelevant. However, the law is supposedly more objective than politics. Stormont’s pro-Remain politicians have given that credence by bringing their case and seeking an appeal,both actions based on points of law by definition.
Any failure to accept the finality of the judgements against them not only perpetuates a false impression of damage to the peace process but undermines the power of the courts to correct it.
There was a demonstration of how dangerous this can be last Saturday, when Gerry Adams told a Sinn Féin conference that Brexit is a “hostile action” that will “destroy the Good Friday Agreement”.
His comments were not a one-off. They were echoed by Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s new Northern leader, on her appointment by Adams two days later. O’Neill added that Brexit contravenes the consent principle.
Sinn Féin may have been getting its lines in before the supreme court verdict. The party is certainly positioning itself for a Stormont election and talks, and it is fully entitled to use Brexit for that purpose. The British position is hardly beyond criticism.
But writing the agreement’s epitaph was as irresponsible as it was groundless. Given the challenges ahead, political leaders should be assuring supporters that at least the legal basis of peace is not threatened. No single party owns the agreement – especially not Sinn Féin, which abstained from the show of hands that passed it. If judging its demise cannot be left to judges alone, neither should it be left to Adams.
The Sinn Féin president told last Saturday’s conference that Irish politics must respond to Brexit by coming together to plan for unification. This is not incompatible with first coming together to reject self-serving attacks on the peace process – quite the opposite, in fact.
Brexit is an act of appalling carelessness towards Ireland, and many people may sincerely perceive it to be hostile. But it does not breach one word of the Belfast Agreement and that is as definitive as such a judgement can ever be.
Why would anyone not be delighted to say so?