Brexit could have ‘catastrophic effect on peace process’, court told

Lawyer says Belfast Agreement gives North a ‘veto’ over any constitutional change to its status

Victims’ rights campaigner Raymond McCord, who is challenging the constitutional authority of the British government to take Northern Ireland out of the European Union . File photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

Victims’ rights campaigner Raymond McCord, who is challenging the constitutional authority of the British government to take Northern Ireland out of the European Union . File photograph: Matt Kavanagh/The Irish Times

 

Brexit could have a “catastrophic effect on the peace process”, the High Court in Belfast was told on Tuesday. .

A lawyer for victims’ rights campaigner Raymond McCord, who is challenging the constitutional authority of the British government to take Northern Ireland out of the European Union, contended that Brexit would breach the principle of consent in the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

Ronan Lavery, QC, argued before Mr Justice Maguire that as a result of the Belfast Agreement, Northern Ireland has special constitutional status within the United Kingdom.

He said that when the British and Irish governments endorsed the Belfast Agreement of Good Friday 1998 they signed up to the people of Northern Ireland having a “veto” over any change to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. Taking Northern Ireland out of the EU without consent would breach that veto, he contended.

In the June referendum Northern Ireland voted by 56 per cent to remain in the EU while an overall majority of the people of the UK voted to quit Europe.

British prime minister Theresa May, Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster and Brexit supporters have insisted the overall UK vote is binding on Northern Ireland.

However Mr Lavery argued that the Belfast Agreement was the effective constitution for Northern Ireland and it was for the people of Northern Ireland alone to determine whether there should be any change to that position. “Only the people of Northern Ireland can decide if there will be any change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland,” Mr Lavery said.

The lawyer said that the Belfast Agreement struck a “delicate balance” between the “binary choice” of Northern Ireland being part of the UK or part of a united Ireland. Under the consent principle of the Belfast Agreement only the people of Northern Ireland could decide whether there could be a constitutional change to the North.

As an example Mr Lavery said that if the British government at some stage wished to allow it and the Irish Government to have joint sovereignty over Northern Ireland it could not do so without the agreement of a majority of the people of the Northern Ireland.

Mr Lavery said that full Brexit would “profoundly affect the constitutional status” of Northern Ireland. “It could have a catastrophic affect on the peace process in the delicate constitutional balance that we have reached,” he said.

Mr Lavery said that under Brexit, Britain could withdraw from the British Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights. He said that victims’ campaigner Mr McCord, whose son Raymond junior was murdered by the Ulster Volunteer Force in 1997, relied on elements of such legislation.

He said Mr McCord was British and a unionist but because of the “upheaval” caused by the referendum he was now considering applying for an Irish passport. Mr McCord is taking part in a two-day judicial review seeking to challenge the British government’s insistence that Brexit is also binding on Northern Ireland.

A group of politicians and human rights representatives that include the SDLP and Alliance leaders, Colum Eastwood and David Ford, former Sinn Féin minister John O’Dowd, Green Assembly member Steven Agnew, former Progressive Unionist Party leader Dawn Purvis and the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) are also engaged in the judicial review.

They are represented by David Scoffield, QC. Similar to Mr McCord that group is arguing that legally the British government must accord “adequate weight” to the fact that a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU and that in relation to the 1998 Belfast Agreement the “unique requirements of Northern Ireland constitutional law and statute” must be safeguarded. Anthony McGleenan, QC, is representing the British government.

The North’s Attorney General, John Larkin, QC, is representing the Northern Executive. Among those observing proceedings from the public gallery on Tuesday were Mr O’Dowd, Mr Eastwood and SDLP Assembly Nichola Mallon.

The hearing is continuing.