The BrexitLawNI group – a joint-research project between Queen’s University Belfast, the Ulster University and the Committee on the Administration of Justice – has released a new report, Brexit and The Peace Process, examining the current low in diplomatic relations between Ireland and the United Kingdom. Following the UK’s shock referendum vote to leave the European Union in 2016, the document highlights the country’s subsequent abandonment of the “habits of cooperation” first established between London and Dublin in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. In particular, the researchers note Britain’s “quiet retreat” from the legal and constitutional principles that came into effect with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the regional and international peace accords which effectively ended decades of conflict in the British-administered Six Counties. With the UK ignoring or downplaying fears of political instability in the contested territory, there are growing expectations that any serious attempt to reimpose a “hard border” between north-east Ulster and the rest of the island will be met with violent opposition.
In order to prevent this, the group strongly recommends that governments and officials in London, Dublin and Brussels:
- Avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland at all costs. Any such border would further deteriorate political relations within NI, between NI and the ROI, and between the UK and Irish governments. It would also, inevitably, become a target for dissident republicans opposed to the peace process.
- As suggested by the Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, the UK and Irish governments should revisit and enhance existing bilateral cooperation mechanisms between the governments to safeguard ‘habits of cooperation’ linked to their responsibilities as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement and stewards of the peace process.
- Agreements need to be reached between the UK government, the Irish government and the EU with regard to continued funding on peace process related work in NI and the border region beyond Brexit. In particular, the British government needs to be specific about how their commitments to such funding will be enacted.
- Ensure that future intergovernmental relationships within the UK fully respect the constitutional fundamentals of the NI peace process and the principles embedded in its founding Agreements.
- The UK, Irish government and EU negotiators should recognise that NI is already supposed to enjoy a special constitutional status within the UK and on the island of Ireland and work to ensure that this status is respected and protected in the EU-UK (and Ireland-UK) negotiations and in their legal and political outcomes.
- The UK government should make a reciprocal agreement with the EU to maintain all the existing rights of EU citizens in NI in return for all those born in the North, whether British or Irish citizens, having the rights of EU citizenship.
- The UK government should guarantee equality of rights of Irish and British citizens.
- The two governments and local political parties in NI and the Republic should ensure that any future discussion on Irish reunification, including the conduct of a border poll, is conducted in a way that foregrounds the human rights, equality and political identity concerns of all – in particular those in the unionist community.
- As part of the renewed focus on the importance of human rights and equality for all in the wake of Brexit, a Bill of Rights for NI should be enacted that will guarantee a rights-based society and regulate the fair operation of the devolved institutions as well as a Charter of Rights for the island of Ireland that would help to underline the fundamental importance of human rights and equality in both jurisdictions.
- The UK government should prioritise continued membership in Europol and should take steps to ensure the continuation of data sharing with the EU, including the European Investigation Order. In addition, the UK must continue to allow jurisdiction of the CJEU to maximise law enforcement and security cooperation with the EU and ensure effective oversight.
However, getting the UK’s agreement to the above peace-saving measures seems unlikely as long as the Conservative Party government in London is beholden to xenophobic backbench MPs and the hibernophobic Democratic Unionist Party to stay in power.