Brexit challenges dismissed by Northern Ireland High Court

Judge says implications of EU departure still uncertain after politicians sought veto

A protest has taken place against Brexit at the Old Customs Post at Carrickcarnon on the Dublin Belfast road. It is one of six being held along the border and is organised by the group Border Communities against Brexit. Video: Enda O'Dowd

 

A Belfast High Court judge has dismissed two applications challenging the outcome of the Brexit referendum.

Mr Justice Maguire on Friday rejected two judicial review challenges to the result of the referendum on leaving the European Union brought separately by a group of Northern Ireland politicians and human rights representatives, and by victims’ campaigner Raymond McCord.

The cases were taken on five different grounds but the judge rejected all of them. The politicians which included Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, former Alliance leader David Ford, and Steven Agnew of the Greens argued that quitting the EU would be an “act of profound legal and constitutional as well as political significance” for Northern Ireland which voted 56 per cent to remain in Europe.

Mr Justice Maguire concentrated on how Brexit would impact on Northern Ireland legislation and made clear his findings would not be prejudicial to similar cases being taken in England and Wales.

A key plank of the case taken by the politicians and the Committee on the Administration of Justice and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Consortium was that Article 50 to begin taking the UK out of the EU could not be triggered without an act of the British parliament.

Article 50

Mr Justice Maguire said he “was unable to identify any particular provision which expressly sought to limit” the power of the British government in relation to triggering Article 50. He said it would be an “over statement to suggest that...a constitutional bulwark” to the Belfast Agreement of 1998 would be breached in such circumstances.

The judge said it “remains to be seen” what precisely Brexit will produce. “While the wind of change may be about to blow, the precise direction in which it will blow cannot yet be determined so there is a level of uncertainty, as is evident from discussion about, for example, how Northern Ireland’s land boundary with Ireland will be affected by actual withdrawal by the UK from the EU,” he said.

He said the court was not satisfied that the power of the British government to have prerogative power above parliament on Brexit was “chased from the field”.

“Rather it is the court’s view the prerogative power is still operative and can be used for the purpose of the executive giving notification for the purpose of Article 50,” he said.

Mr Justice Maguire also rejected arguments that the Northern Assembly must consent to the triggering of Article 50, that “excessive weight” should not be given to the referendum result and that implementing Brexit would contravene equality law in Northern Ireland.

The legal team for Mr McCord, whose son Raymond junior was murdered by the UVF in 1997, argued 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, they contended.

But this argument also was dismissed by Mr Justice Maguire. He said he was not aware of any such provision in the Belfast Agreement. He said it was difficult to deviate from what was plain, that the Westminster parliament has “retained to itself the ability to legislate for Northern Ireland without the need to resort to any special procedure”.

Appeal

Solicitor Fiona Cassidy on behalf of politicians and human rights groups said the judgement would be considered before any decision was taken on whether to appeal the ruling.

Mr O’Dowd, Mr Eastwood, Mr Ford and Mr Agnew said they were “disappointed” with the result, as did Mr McCord. He had legal aid in the case and said he would appeal the judgment.

Mr McCord said he took the case because he believed victims had a better chance of getting justice with the assistance of the European Union. He believed the British government would renege on their duty to victims. Reflecting his concern over Brexit he said he had just taken out an Irish passport, which he received on Thursday. He produced both his British and Irish passports for the cameras outside the court.

A spokeswoman for the Northern Secretary James Brokenshire welcomed the result which, she said, “agrees with us that the (British) government can proceed to trigger Article 50 as planned”.

“As we have always made clear, we stand by our commitments under the Belfast Agreement and the outcome of the EU referendum doesn’t change this. We will now await the outcome of the parallel cases under consideration by the England and Wales High Court, before setting out our next steps,” she added.