Barnier/Davis press conference after first substantial round of Brexit talks.

Speaking after four days of negotiations, the Chief Negotiator for the EU, Michel Barnier, today said there had been some areas of agreement about how British citizens living abroad and EU nationals living in the UK should be treated after Brexit. However, he said the EU believes citizens’ rights should be backed by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Mr Barnier said a clarification of the UK’s position on settling its outstanding debts to the EU when it leaves was also needed.

He said: “A clarification of the UK position is indispensable for us to negotiate and for us to make sufficient progress on this financial dossier, which is inseparable from the other withdrawal dossiers…We know that agreement will not be achieved through incremental steps. As soon as the UK is ready to clarify the nature of its commitments, we will be prepared to discuss this with the British negotiators.”

On the pressing issue of the island of Ireland, there was a first discussion on the impact of Brexit on two key subjects: the Good Friday Agreement and the Common Travel Area. Mr Barnier said there was agreement that the Good Friday Agreement, “in all its dimensions, requires more detailed discussions.” In particular, “more work needs to be done to protect North-South cooperation between Ireland and Northern Ireland.”

There was also agreement that the UK should clarify in the next session how it intends on maintaining the Common Travel Area after leaving the EU.

Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, said talks had been “robust” but there was a lot to be “positive” about in terms of the overall negotiations.

The takeaway: there was scant evidence of progress in a press conference to mark the end of the first substantive round of Brexit talks. Both sides looked – and sounded- as far apart as ever on key issues, most particularly on EU citizens’ rights and the divorce bill. Michel Barnier said there was a “fundamental divergence” with the British negotiating team over the way that the rights of EU citizens in the UK would be guaranteed, adding that he needed clarity on the UK’s position on the Brexit bill. Brexit However, David Davis said “We shouldn’t expect incremental progress in every round [of talks].”

Three rounds of Brexit talks were scheduled in June: for August, September, and October. There will be an EU summit in late October, where EU leaders will decide on whether the UK has made sufficient progress on financial issues – the so-called ‘divorce bill’. Only then can the UK progress to trade talks with the EU.

The press conference came today after Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, confirmed the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will be debated in the Commons on Thursday 7th and Monday 11th September.

The UK Parliament is now in recess, and will return on 5th September.

HL EU Committee publishes Brexit: devolution report

The House of Lords EU Committee has today (19 July 2017) published its report ‘Brexit: devolution’ which examines the impact of Brexit on the devolved institutions.

The key message of the report is Brexit presents fundamental constitutional challenges to the United Kingdom as a whole. Therefore, the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments, and – ‘if it is formed’ – the Northern Ireland Executive, will have to set aside their differences and work constructively together to achieve an outcome that ‘protects the interests of all parts of the UK’. The report submits that no durable solution will be possible without the consent of all the nations of the UK.

The report’s conclusions for Northern Ireland included (see chapter 3, para 93-99):

  • Due to Northern Ireland’s ‘distinctive’ geographical, historical, political, and constitutional circumstances, it will be ‘profoundly affected’ by Brexit. There will be a significant impact, including on cross-border trade, the agri-food sector, energy, transport, fisheries, access to EU labour, healthcare provision, tourism, and police and security cooperation.
  • It appears the Brexit debate has ‘undermined political stability and exacerbated cross-community divisions, contributing to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive and the calling of an early Assembly election’. This, together with the Conservative-DUP confidence and supply agreement at Westminster, and with no nationalist MPs having taken their seats in the new Parliament, ‘has created new uncertainty, underlining the fragility of the political settlement in Northern Ireland’.
  • Political stability in Northern Ireland must not be allowed to become ‘collateral damage’ of Brexit.
  • The specific circumstances in Northern Ireland give rise to unique issues that will need to be addressed during the Brexit negotiations.
  • The unique nature of UK-Irish relations necessitates a unique solution. The report welcomed the European Council’s commitment to seek “flexible and imaginative solutions”, and asks the UK Government to work with the EU negotiators to identify and outline such solutions as a matter of priority.

It is interesting that the EU Committee acknowledged that the use of the phrase ‘special status’ in respect of Brexit is a politically contentious term for unionists, who do not want Northern Ireland’s place in the UK to be undermined. The Committee did however advocate consideration for the specific circumstances in Northern Ireland, which give rise to unique issues. The report finds that these issues, including the issue of the border on the island of Ireland will need to be addressed during the Brexit negotiations.

 

House of Commons – Select Committee Chair Elections – The Results.

Eleven select committees held elections for the position of Chair on Wednesday 12 July, including the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

There were also seventeen select committees where the position of Chair was uncontested. If there was only one candidate for a position, the MP was deemed elected unopposed.

Results are as follows:

Departmental committees
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy – Rachel Reeves (Labour; Leeds West)
Communities and Local Government – Clive Betts (Labour; Sheffield South East.)
Culture, Media and Sport – Damian Collins (Conservative;  Folkestone and Hythe – unopposed)
Defence – Dr Julian Lewis (Conservative; New Forest East)
Education – Robert Halfon (Conservative; Harlow)
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – Neil Parish (Conservative; Tiverton and Honiton)
Exiting the European Union – Hilary Benn (Labour; Leeds Central – unopposed)
Foreign Affairs – Tom Tugendhat (Conservative; Tonbridge and Malling)
Health –  Dr Sarah Wollaston (Conservative; Totnes – unopposed)
Home Affairs – Yvette Cooper (Labour; Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford – unopposed)
International Development – Stephen Twigg (Labour; Liverpool West Derby – unopposed)
International Trade – Angus MacNeil (Scottish National Party; Na h-Eileanan an Iar – unopposed)
Justice – Robert Neill (Conservative; Bromley and Chislehurst – unopposed)
Northern Ireland Affairs – Dr Andrew Murrison (Conservative; South West Wiltshire)
Science and Technology – Norman Lamb (Liberal Democrat; North Norfolk)
Scottish Affairs – Pete Wishart (Scottish National Party; Perth and North Perthshire – unopposed)
Transport – Lilian Greenwood (Labour; Nottingham South)
Treasury – Nicky Morgan (Conservative; Loughborough)
Welsh Affairs –David T C Davies (Conservative; Monmouth – unopposed)
Women and Equalities – Maria Miller (Conservative; Basingstoke – unopposed)
Work and Pensions – Frank Field (Labour; Birkenhead – unopposed)

Other specified select committees:
Backbench Business Committee – Ian Mearns (Labour; Gateshead)
Environmental Audit – Mary Creagh (Labour; Wakefield – unopposed)
Petitions – Helen Jones (Labour; Warrington North – unopposed)
Procedure –  Charles Walker (Conservative; Broxbourne – unopposed)
Public Accounts – Meg Hillier (Labour; Hackney South and Shoreditch – unopposed)
Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs – Bernard Jenkin (Conservative; Harwich and North Essex – unopposed)
Standards – Sir Kevin Barron (Labour; Rother Valley – unopposed)

No doubt there will be interesting times ahead with Nicky Morgan as Chair of the Treasury Select Committee. A pro-Remainer, she saw off the arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg to position herself as a thorn in the side of the UK Government’s plans for leaving the EU. The former Treasury minister and Education Secretary was elected by MPs across all parties, but with particular support from those on the Labour benches who want to stop Mrs May’s hardline Brexit plan to leave the single market, customs union and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

Another one to watch is the new Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Dr Andrew Murrison is a proponent of the Military Covenant’s extension to Northern Ireland. The mainstream unionist parties support the extension, but the nationalist parties do not. Indeed, it was a thorny issue during the long-running talks process at Stormont to restore a power-sharing Executive.

Human rights working group – Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

For the past couple of months, a group of QUB students, including myself, have been part of a working group on human rights in Northern Ireland. We are focusing particularly on the need for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement 1998.

The Good Friday Agreement 1998 included the commitment that the upon the establishment of a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, it would be asked:

“…to consult and to advice on the scope for defining, in Westminster legislation, rights supplementary to those in the ECHR, to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, drawing as appropriate on international instruments and experiences. These additional rights to reflect the principles of mutual respect for the identity and ethos of both communities and parity of esteem, and – taken together with the ECHR – to constitute a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.”

This commitment was subsequently reflected in the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

As the 19th anniversary of the Agreement recently came and went  against a backdrop of continued political stalemate and inertia, we feel it is time for the Bill of Rights to be prioritised.

A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, which would take into account the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, would ensure legal recognition and protection of the human rights of all our citizens. Human rights has become topical here since the very announcement of the March election, let alone after the smoke cleared and the parties sought to interpret the results delivered by the electorate. As the political situation rumbles on, with legacy cases and Irish key issues, and as the outcome of Brexit remains uncertain, it is time for a Bill of Rights to be realised for the benefit of all.

Bills of rights provide legal recognition and protection of rights to all citizens, but it applies particularly to those within marginalised and vulnerable groups. This is of relevance to Northern Ireland, where human rights issues have been raised in relation to children and women in detention, women accessing reproductive healthcare, equality for the LGBT* community, and the Irish-speaking community. Adopting a Bill of rights would ensure a defense for these communities, and provide legal protection of their rights and redress for violations of same.

A Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland is not a new proposition. Since the 1960s, there have been calls from across the political divide for a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. The common argument is a Bill of Rights would provide for a stable, shared society built on equality and non-discrimination. As part of a constitutional foundation, it would ensure no matter who was in power, human rights would be respected.

It’s been an utter pleasure to work with fellow students on human rights in NI, and I am looking forward to our future work!

We have written a blog post for Rights NI, an online platform for the discussion of human-rights based issues, entitled ‘QUB student working group calls for renewed consideration of NI Bill of Rights‘.

We are currently working on a report which will merge together our individial research and research papers on the subject. It will ultimately conclude that it is time for a Bill of Rights to be realised and implemented.

I am tasked with overseeing the report, and have spent the a couple of evenings after work merging the documents together. It has been fascinating work, and I cannot wait to see where we end up.

From snap press conference, to snap General Election.

And so it came to pass, the Tuesday after Easter weekend, that the British Prime Minister did announce her intention to call an early General Election.

What started out as a sudden announcement of a press conference outside Downing Street quickly descended into rampant speculation. Had Queen died? Is Theresa May resigning? Are we going to war with North Korea? Had Theresa May set off Trident? Is Jeremy Corbyn going to organise an Official Opposition? (Then again, maybe not. I did say it was all mere speculation.) And then, because Northern Ireland is that political thorn in the side of the British government these days (we still do not have an Executive, just so you know) there was some murmurings that perhaps the Prime Minister was about to deliver a statement on the political impasse here, and potentially announce the introduction of direct rule.

I thought the chat about the Prime Minister announcing a resignation on health grounds was unlikely. And, I also considered that despite some questionable decisions since last summer, Theresa May was unlikely to have accidently fired Trident. Firing metaphorical shots about Gibraltar is where it stops with this Prime Minister.

On the speculation about the suspension of Stormont, well, I did not think it to be entirely impossible. The British government is keen for resolution here; it has to present a united front of sorts during the upcoming Brexit negotiations. Moreover, no British government has ever enjoyed dealing with the political crises Northern Ireland throws up. However, I ruled this out because any announcement on Northern Ireland, whether to impose direct rule or call yet another snap election, would surely come from the Secretary of State. James Brokenshire has taken the lead on Northern Ireland since the Executive’s collapse over the RHI controversy in early January. Theresa May has taken a back seat, especially over the recent negotiations and their subsequent collapse and re-formation. James Brokenshire had said he would come to a decision after the Easter weekend, and the political parties do seem to be stuck in stalemate. But I doubted the Prime Minister would summon the UK-wide media to a sudden press conference just for Northern Ireland.

That left speculation over an early General Election. This seemed possible to me, with Labour polling in dire straits, with the Conservatives polling strongly in marked contrast. And after all, Theresa May needs a mandate, and urgently. She found herself anointed as Conservative Party leader and thus Prime Minister last summer; she was never elected to be Prime Minister. Attempting to oversee the most divisive operation in Brexit, she needs to say she has the support of the people – at least, the support of the majority of those who vote. Moreover, she does not wish to be simply the Prime Minister who heralded Brexit. As we have seen with her stance on education, particularly around grammar schools, there is a whole domestic policy agenda she wishes to pursue.

The scene is set. The Prime Minister settles down at her podium, ten minutes before she was expected. Truly, we all should have picked up the theme was ‘early’ from that alone.

And so she duly announced she had spoken with her Cabinet, and all had agreed an early election was the most suitable course. It shall be held on the 8th June, and essentially contested on Brexit.

In her statement, May said her government was trying to deliver on last year’s referendum result by making sure Britain regained control and struck new trade deals.

“After the country voted to leave the EU, Britain needed certainty, stability and strong leadership. Since I became prime minister the government has delivered precisely that,” she said, but claimed that other political parties had opposed her efforts.

“The country is coming together but Westminster is not. Labour have threatened to vote against the final agreement we reach. The Lib Dems have said they want to grind the business of government to a standstill. Unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.”

Now, Theresa May has been quite clear in the past about wanting the next general election to be in 2020, so she stunned many in Westminster by announcing that it would actually be held this year.  The Prime Minister claimed she had changed her mind “reluctantly”, although the spate of polls putting the Tories as much as 21 points ahead of Labour may have made it easier. You know, 21 points ahead means 21 points ahead. And all this, despite a recent policy blitz by Jeremy Corbyn and Labour. Evidently, the Prime Minister was tempted to capitalise on the poor ratings in an effort to boost her slim working majority in order to pass both Brexit and domestic legislation. (This, of course, will render her current reliance on the support of the DUP in the Commons null and void…)

The Prime Minister will first have to win a vote by MPs today to hold an early election thanks to the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, she cannot call an election directly, but must laydown a motion in the House of Commons. This will require two-thirds of MPs to back it. The Commons vote will follow a 90-minute debate on Wednesday, after Prime Minister’s Questions and any urgent questions or ministerial statements.

That shouldn’t be too hard for her to win given that Labour has welcomed the move, while the SNP and Liberal Democrats would find it hard to vote against it as they would be effectively voting to keep the Tories in power.

Currently, the Commons composition looks like this: the Conservatives have 330 MPs, giving the party its working majority of 16. Labour has 229, the SNP 54, and the Lib Dems 8. The DUP hold 8, Sinn Féin 4, the SDLP 3, and the UUP 2, with one Independent. Plaid Cymru have 3 seats, the Greens 1, and there are four other independents. (Note that UKIP recently lost their only MP, when Douglas Carswell announced his resignation from the party. If he votes with his old party, the Conservatives, he gives the government a majority of 17.) Based on current polling, Labour could lose around 70 seats.

The Conservative leader said the vote would give “certainty and stability” to the country for the Brexit process. As nothing promises stability and certainty quite like an early General Election on the most divisive issue of our times in Brexit.

Moreover, Theresa May might have hurt her public image slightly by calling this election. After vowing for months that she would not seek a snap election, insisting she would see the government through to the next statutory General Election in 2020, she now appears to have gone back on her word for the sake of her party, and party seats. The Independent has rather helpfully complied a list of her statements on the issue of an early election. It is worth highlighting that the most recent comment on the issue came just under a month ago.

This will be the second General Election in as many years, and the third UK-wide vote in two years. But spare a thought for my fellow citizens in Northern Ireland. We have had two Assembly elections in less than a year, and now have to return to the polls in a few months. And it gets better: if there is no agreement reached between the main political parties, we face the prospect of a third Assembly election in a few months, too.

Of course, one could argue that the decision of the Cabinet to support the Prime Minister in calling for an early General Election, during a time of political instability in Northern Ireland, is evidence of their (dis)regard for the peace process here. One could argue this. But as for myself, I’m digging around for my canvassing shoes. It is going to be a long few weeks.

Ireland, Brexit, and borders.

The rate and extent of the work undertaken by the Irish Government in preparation of the UK invoking Art 50 and triggering Brexit negotiations is staggering. It is also expected: the Irish Government started to research to investigate the impact of Brexit would have in the Republic of Ireland in 2015. The Irish Goverment is aware of the potential impact on its economy and trade, and wishes to be as informed going into negotiations as possible.

Last year, in the immediate aftermath of the EU membership referendum held in the UK, the Irish Cabinet held an emergency meeting. The Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, warned about the potentially serious implications of Brexit for the Irish economy and the severity of the consequences for the public finances.

The Irish Government then announced it had adopted a Contingency Framework to identify key policy issues to be managed by Government Departments in the event of Brexit.

The Contingency Framework is being coordinated by the Department of the Taoiseach. It is based on preparations, including contributions and responses from Government Departments to identify the key strategic and sectoral issues arising from Brexit. The Irish Government said this framework would ensure the Government and its Departments could focus on key policy areas and issues to be addressed in any negotiations, with a view to minimising potential operational risks likely to arise.

The Taoiseach said:

“The result of the Referendum means that the people of the UK have declared their wish to leave the EU.  It is important to be clear: the UK has not actually left the EU.  Until it formally withdraws from the Union, the UK remains a full Member, with all of its existing rights and obligations.

Today’s result marks the beginning of a new phase of negotiated withdrawal – one that is expected to take place over at least two years and possibly longer.

Businesses can continue to trade as normal and people can continue to travel as normal between Ireland and the UK, including Northern Ireland.

In the meantime, the Government has adopted an initial Contingency Framework to map out the key issues that will be most important to Ireland in the coming weeks and months. This will be an iterative process as issues emerge and recede in the course of negotiations.”

Identified priority issues included: UK-EU Negotiations, British-Irish Relations, Northern Ireland, North-South Border Impacts, Trade, Investment, Competitiveness and Macro–economic issues, and Research/Innovation funding and Energy.

The Contingency Framework will aim to track and monitor issues over such time as they arise: (i) period immediately following referendum; (ii) pre-negotiation period; and (iii) period of negotiations. The Contingency Framework would enable Ministers, Departments and Agencies in tracking and adapting the detail of contingencies and risk management strategies arising in each of the key strategic, policy and operational areas previously identified. It was expected that more areas and issues would be added as the terms and conditions of the new UK/EU relationship evolve going forward.

The Irish Government noted that:

Detailed negotiation strategies will be prepared on each of the key points for use in negotiations in Brussels, London, Belfast and other capitals as appropriate.  It is important to recall that Ireland – as a committed Member State of the EU – will work within the EU context.  At the same time, Ireland has unique bilateral interests with the UK, including with regard to Northern Ireland, and the Government will also have to work bilaterally in close contact with the UK Government and the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland.

The attention paid by the Irish Government to undertaking Brexit preparations and identifying issues of relevance and importance to the Irish Republic is impressive – especially when compared to the work undertaken by both the Northern Irish Executive and indeed, the British Government. As part of the its Brexit contingency planning, the Irish Government ensured a number of existing structures were in place to be utilised to manage the process on a whole-of-government basis. Such structures include:

  • The Cabinet Committee on EU Affairs and the Senior Officials Group that supports it;
  • The joint UK Permanent Secretaries/ Irish Secretaries General group and its North-South equivalent;
  • A senior official in every Government Department has already been identified to oversee this issue.  All Departments will now supplement this arrangement with a Top Management sub-committee specifically dealing with the implications of this development for their area of work;
  • Department of the Taoiseach chairs an Interdepartmental group of senior officials that has been meeting regularly to look specifically at the bilateral and national interests affected by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU;
  •  A wider consultative group of stakeholders chaired by Department of the Taoiseach comprising key business representative groups, ICTU and NGOs;
  • The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade will continue to use the expertise of the Export Trade Council to advise Government on this issue. The expertise of the Council will be focused on the issues arising from the UK’s disengagement from the EU; and lastly
  • The work of the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council will become more important as mechanisms to develop the detailed outworking of policy issues arising.

By October 2016, the Irish Government announced its intent to increase its Brexit preparatory work by announcing it would host an All-Island Civic Dialogue to seek broad based views on all-island implications of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. A broad range of civic society groups, trade unions, business groups and non-governmental organisations as well as representatives of the main political parties on the island attended the Dialogue, in held early November 2016 in Dublin.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny said it was time to “intensify our engagement” after Theresa May announced the UK Government would invoke Art 50 in March 2017. Following the British Prime Minister’s announcement of her self-imposed deadline, the Irish Government met and agreed to intensify preparations; particularly through closer political and official engagement, including with Northern Ireland, the British Government, and the EU institutions and fellow Member States, and through increased dialogue with civic society. After this meeting, the Taoiseach reaffirmed the Irish Government’s priorities were the economy and trade, the peace process and Northern Ireland, and the EU Common Travel Area. He said:

“Now that we have clarity from Prime Minister May regarding the timetable, we will intensify our engagement and preparation for the negotiations. Ireland faces unique challenges from Brexit, not least given the all-island issues that arise.
I will continue to engage with Northern Ireland party leaders on the range of issues involved and I welcome the commitment of the Executive parties to working through the issues in the context of the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC). The next NSMC Summit, on 18 November in Armagh, will be hugely significant, when we will have completed our Brexit audit of North/South programmes and will consider how we can best protect the peace process and North-South interests in upcoming negotiations…”

However, working with the Northern Ireland Executive and political party leaders has proven to be quite the bumpy ride. For example, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Arlene Foster said there was “no need” for the All-Ireland Civic Dialogue. She told an event at the Conservative Party conference that such a summit would lead to “grandstanding”. In contrast, the DUP’s partner party in the Executive, Sinn Féin, supported the idea. (Sinn Féin would attend the Dialogue, along with the SDLP and Alliance. The DUP and UUP did not attend.)

Moreover, the DUP consistently argued that existing cross-border bodies could be used to work out the implications of Brexit on the island of Ireland, and there was no need to established new and specific bodies or working groups. However, Sinn Féin have spoken of the need to work closely with the Irish Government outside of current cross-border bodies, evidence if needed of the disunity within the Executive in relation to Brexit.

In addition, attempting to work with the Northern Ireland Executive, most particularly on the issue of the border, is not aided when the British Government seemingly has no clue or consistent stance. In June 2016, a few days before the EU referendum was held, the then Home Secretary Theresa May said it was “inconceivable” that there would not be any changes on border arrangements with the Republic of Ireland in the event of a Leave vote. Whilst acknowledging the British-Irish Common Travel Area pre-dated the EU, she suggested that if the UK withdrew from the EU, this result in tariffs which would need some form of controls.

Fast forward to July, and now Prime Minister Theresa May revised her position. During a visit to Northern Ireland, she said whilst a border would happen, “nobody wants to return to the borders of the past”. If that doen’t cause headaches enough, the division between the First and deputy First Minister will. Martin McGuinness stressed there should not be a hard, visibile border and said that the Prime Minister needs to consider the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland:

“On the issue of Brexit, I speak for the people of the north and the people of the north who are unionists, nationalists and republicans made it clear that they see their future in Europe.”

However, Mrs Foster said politicians had to work for everyone in Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland was part of the UK, so had to work within the UK plan.

“We all know that there was an election in May of this year and the Democratic Unionist Party, as a result of that, has 38 members [of the assembly] and he [Mr McGuinness and Sinn Féin] has 28 members, so I think that jointly we speak for the people of Northern Ireland together…

“We should be looking to achieve what is best for all the people of Northern Ireland and not try to make political point scoring out of what has occurred.”

To be fair to the Executive, it has at least been firm and consistent in its approach, for all that it contains two opposing stances. The British Government’s approach keeps twisting and turning.

Theresa May was accused of reversing her position on post-Brexit border controls in September 2016. After her comments in July 2016 as previously outlined, in her first interview as Prime Minister with a journalist from Northern Ireland she said she wanted to see continued free movement. Mrs May said she agreed with the Irish government and Northern Ireland Executive about ensuring there was not a “return to the borders of the past”. On tat basis, she would work “closely together” with them to ensure free movement across the border. She denied that she had changed her view, and when questioned on how the border would be policed or controlled after Brexit, said:

“We are discussing with the Irish government at the moment how we can develop these ideas in ways that are going to ensure that we deliver on the intention of all parties.”

Evidently these discussions and also engagements over more general issues are successful (see: sarcasm) because the Irish Government criticised the British Government over its Brexit strategy in late 2016. As frustrations grew over the lack of clarity and certainty in the British intentions, and the British Government’s refusal to outline objections, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan said the “mixed messaging was a matter of concern” given that six months had passed since the referendum. He added:

“I want to see a plan. After six months we should be moving now from slogans towards having a clarified plan. I don’t see evidence of that, and I find that regrettable.”

Such exasperation is understandable. As the British Government has not outlined its objectives, the Irish Government – and indeed, the Northern Ireland Executive – is none the wiser about whether the British Government intends to lobby for the UK to remain in the Single Market, or seek an alternative arrangement. In the absence of any replacement agreement, the Republic would be required to impose a tariff on goods entering from the North and the rest of the UK, with Irish goods seeing a tariff imposed when they enter the North and the rest of the UK.In addition, the lack of clarity in relation to the British objectives means the implications for the common travel area between Ireland and the UK, which allows an open and invisible border between North and South, are also uncertain. Given the extensive investigative and preparatory work undertaken by the Irish Government compared to the British Government, little wonder then Mr Flanagan and the rest of the Irish Cabinet are frustrated, and wary of the forthcoming negotiations.

If the Irish Government did not have enough to contend with, given the British Government’s habit of reversing its position and not clarifying its objective, it now has a policial storm in the North to monitor.

As the RHI scandal runs on, it should be remembered that the designated date for invoking Art 50 and triggering Brexit draws closer. The risk of an early Assembly election could not have been more ill-timed. Should Sinn Féin decide to walk out of the Assembly, or the DUP decide to show their hand and call an election, we will have a prolonged period where Northern Ireland lacks an administrative government. Were this to occur close to the March deadline, control could be transferred back to Westminster, and a British Government which boasts a pro-Leave majority.

Apparently this is a growing concern within the Irish Government, which fears the political chaos in Northern Ireland and potential transfer of control back to London might result in a ‘hard’ Brexit. The Irish Government is concerned that if there is no Stormont representation, then the Republic’s hand in the negotiations would be weakened. Both Northern Ireland and the Republic do not want a hard border or restrictions on the Common Travel Area. Both wish to see the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process recognised and respected. The Irish Government would certainly prefer to partner with the Northern Ireland Executive, not the British Government on these issues.

Essentially, the Irish Government is that student who has their coursework completed and submitted far in advance of the deadline. The Northern Ireland Executive is trying, but is currently in the grip of a writing crisis. And the British Government? It is the student who swears they have their coursework completed, but actually waits until the night before, staring at a blank Word document in rising panic.

We can only wait and see what happens during the negotiations, but I hope the British Government does not reverse its position the border again. It is only too clear that the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive must work together to secure their shared objectives and advance their interests.

Northern Ireland, Brexit, Consent, and the need for Special Status.

Tick tock, tick tock. The countdown to the triggering of Art 50 is slowly but surely winding down. We have merely two months until the UK Prime Minister’s self-imposed deadline of March 2017. I must confess I feel rather nauseous at the prospect.

As a young person living in Northern Ireland, who identifies as Irish and European, I dread the inevitable, prolonged negotiations. The uncertainty surrounding the outcome of same worries me, and I am less than impressed or reassured with the response of the British government towards Northern Ireland. Whilst we have genuine fears about the potential of an imposed border between the North and South, we are treated to something akin to a shoulder shrug and the ever-present comment of faux comfort: “we do not want a return to the borders of the past”. In Northern Ireland, this comment from the British government is on a par with the now infamous “Brexit means Brexit” (i.e. mockery and parody).

I had been involved in canvassing during the EU referendum in Belfast. I spoke to many people as they went about their day, and had noticed the general view was Northern Ireland would suffer a more negative impact from a potential withdrawal from the EU than the rest of the UK. True, there were those who believed withdrawing from the EU would save the UK money, and there were those who believed that the EU “interfered” in the UK. I remember explaining the role the EU played during The Troubles when it was still called the EC, providing funding and support for investment, peace projects, and cross-community work. The EU’s financial assistance continued to this day, I explained. Did they know our buses and trains benefited from EU funding? No, came the reply.

What was also noticeable was there were those who said to me, “what does it matter how we vote here? Everyone knows England will take us out”. This was a statement ringing with truth. The size of the potential electorate in England outmatched Northern Ireland. The majority of us might desire one outcome, but our vote would be a drop in the ocean compared to the overall vote from England. So whilst I felt strongly confident that both Northern Ireland and Scotland would vote remain, I was always nervous about the results in Wales and England. When the dust cleared and the result became known, I realised I had been right: 56% voted Remain in Northern Ireland, but it was smothered in the larger-than-expected Leave mandate from England and Wales.

I had watched throughout the campaign as the polls narrowed, but I was conscious of not pinning my hopes to the polls, given their performance in the 2015 General Election. Watching the polls narrow and spike, I asked myself how we had ended up in this mess, why David Cameron had gambled on the pledge to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in the Conservative manifesto n 2015, and how could this ever provide a fair playing field, given how all regions in the UK had different views, relationships and benefits when it came to the EU.

I voted on the 23rd June 2016, and came home with a sudden, sinking feeling. I did not feel optimistic about the results. It was foreshadowing in motion. I stayed up all night, and throughout the morning of the 24th June. I can recall watching with increasing nervousness the decisions across the UK flashing across my television screen, and soon realised that the UK had overall decided to leave. It was a surreal feeling. I felt shocked and disappointed at the decision; my friends felt the same way. My mobile screen was ablaze with messages and texts from friends wondering what on earth would happen to us in Northern Ireland. I suppose we felt uncertain: uncertain of the future, uncertain of Northern Ireland’s status and future, and simply uncertain in ourselves as a strand of our identity had essentially been voted away. I personally felt frustrated at the state of affairs which had been brought about to appease Eurosceptics, without any consideration for the devolved regions, their own history and political landscape. I was frustrated too that Northern Ireland and Scotland had voted to remain, but would have to leave regardless. Watching as the main broadcasters- ITV, the BBC and Sky News – announced the projected Leave result one by one in a parody of a domino effect, I realised I was watching an historic moment. And I felt sick to my core.

My Remain leaflets are still in my bedroom. I kept them, along with the leaflets posted fromm England and the official Leave campaigners. Sometimes I look at them, with their comments of “The UK gives £350m a year to the EU. Let’s fund our NHS instead”. I look at them, and I wonder whether faux facts and inaccurate statements are what is needed to win in politics.

EU referendum campaign

The EU referendum campaign in Northern Ireland was limited, and had commenced at a late stage. Whilst the South of Ireland had started drafting reports to examine the potential ramifications of a UK withdrawal in late 2015, Northern Ireland did not really seem to become engaged with the campaign until the spring of 2016. I think the politicians here were preoccupied with the Assembly election in May 2016; party leaders were unhappy at the decision of David Cameron to hold the EU referendum so close to the Assembly election. When the debate did get under way, it became a discussion along the traditional political lines of Unionism and Nationalism. Unionists generally favoured to leave, and Nationalists favoured to Remain. Most political parties supported the Remain campaign, from the SDLP and Sinn Féin to Alliance and the Green Party. The anti-austerity, socialist People Before Profit were the main advocates of ‘Lexit’.  The Ulster Unionists did not really seem clear on their position: the party stated it advocated Remain, but party MPs urged their supporters to vote Leave. The DUP, the largest party, argued for Leave, espousing the same lines from the British Leave campaigners regarding ‘taking back control of the UK’s future’. They were joined in the Leave camp by the TUV, the more hardline Unionist party led by ex-DUP member and former MEP, Jim Allister.

The SDLP were probably the most engaged party during the campaign, officially registering with the Electoral Commission, with canvassing and leaflet drops, and a strong social media presence. (It was with the SDLP that I took part in canvassing around Belfast, it was with the SDLP that I outlined the benefits of EU membership for NI and the need for NI to adopt an internationalist stance, and it was the SDLP I would soon come to officially call ‘my party’ when I joined in the summer after years of quietly supporting the party.)

The tone was perhaps not as divisive as it was across the water, but there was still sniping between the DUP, the main voice for Leave, and the rest of the parties. The campaign was simply incorporated into the Assembly election campaign, in that canvassing door-to-door included the candidate explaining their stance on the referendum. The main issue was the border, and there was a very real concern that it would be implemented if the UK voted to leave, triggering stark reminders of the past. The impact on trade, agriculture and business was discussed, but it was the SDLP who provided statistical evidence of the negative impact to the economy.

The campaign in Northern Ireland may have arrived late, but at least it arrived. Northern Ireland barely featured in the main, UK-wide coverage of the EU referendum, and the potential impact of Leave outcome. The referendum in my opinion had the effect of reinforcing the belief of many NI citizens that wesimply do not feature in UK-wide matters. The referendum coverage, via both the press and the televised media, focused on arguments pertaining mainly to England, and then sometimes Scotland. British politicians who were predominantly involved in campaigning and media coverage tended to be English. The sole UK Parliamentary report focusing on the consequences of withdrawal for NI was only finalised and published in late May, mere weeks before we would go to the polls. Our then Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, actively and openly campaigned for Leave, knowing full well the majority in Northern Ireland favoured Remain. Neither Ms Villiers, nor any of her fellow Leave campaigners could answer clearly whether border controls would be implemented in the island of Ireland. It was evident that no Leave campaigner had truly considered the issue. This very valid concern was simply dismissed, even as Ministers in the Republic commented on the possibility of same. The whole affair can be summarised in one point: the entire campaign centred around ‘Britain’s membership’ of the EU, and how ‘Britain’ would vote. The term ‘Britain’ both legally and politically referes to Scotland, England and Wales. Northern Ireland is only included in the UK. No one bothered to include Northern Ireland in the discourse and debate then. No one outside Northern Ireland bothers to do so now, not whilst reporters, politicians etc refer to ‘Britain’s exit’ and ‘Brexit’.

The fact that Theresa May has not appointed the Secretaries of State for all the devolved nations – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – as permanent members of her Brexit War Cabinet, informing them they will sit in when relevant, worries me.

Post-EU referendum

In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote, Martin McGuinness, the deputy First Minister, demanded that a border poll be held. This however was swiftly rejected by the then-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers. Again, it felt as though NI could not have a say in its constitutional status, or future, without the approval of the British government. The GFA 1998 and Northern Ireland Act 1998 state a border poll would be permitted to be held by the British government if it was the will of the citizens. This however was not acknowledged by the British government last summer, and I doubt if it will be in the years to come.

The DUP Leader and First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, was scathing of Mr McGuinness’ request for a border poll. She has said she would support a border poll, only so that it could put to rest “once and for all” Irish Nationalists’ quest for reunification. She believes a poll would result in a defeat for the reunification case.

The referendum has triggered new discourse on the future of Northern Ireland, and I have noticed more people discussing border polls and the potential case for reunification with the South. There is a feeling the British government in London does not understand or acknowledge the innate and natural differences in the states which comprise the UK. When Theresa May became Prime Minister, she stood outside Downing Street and spoke of the “precious, precious bond” of the Union. She later dismissed “divisive Nationalists” and their reaction to the Brexit vote at the Conservative Party Conference. This type of attitude, this type of rhetoric is evidence of the lack of understanding for the devolved regions and their genuine concerns and fears over Brexit. In my opinion, it serves only to alienate.

Impact of Brexit outcome

Ever since the vote, Brexit has dominated the discourse here. Nearly every week during plenary in the Assembly, Brexit is mentioned in some form. From discussing the impact it will have on funding for projects and schemes, particularly the impact on cross-community work funded by the EU peace fund, to implications for infrastructure, the economy, education and travel, MLAs are constantly asking questions and demanding answers and clarity. The Executive (comprised of the DUP and Sinn Féin) came under scrutiny last year when it was revealed that a report which assessed the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland was not published during the referendum campaign. It has been subjected to criticism for its lack of a unified position, which is complicated given the Executive is actually divided on the issue of Brexit, as the two parties promoted contrasting outcomes. Moreover, the Executive faced derision when it became apparent the only discourse it has engaged in with the Prime Minister was a short letter asking her to take note of the unique position of Northern Ireland. It has also been accused by the Opposition (UUP, SDLP and Alliance) that it has failed to act since the decision, given the work and consultations being carried out in Scotland and Wales in comparison. I think this brings the issue of how to clarify Northern Ireland’s position, its interests and issues relevant to negotiations, when the Executive is divided on the subject.

Special Status

Last year, the SDLP brought forward a motion in the Assembly about having a special status for Northern Ireland recognised by the EU given its history and Remain vote. The motion in full readThat this Assembly notes the current public concern arising from the European Union referendum vote; endorses the proposal of the Irish Government and others that there should be legal recognition of the unique status of Northern Ireland and the circumstances on the island as part of the arrangements to leave the European Union; believes that this is one mechanism that can safeguard the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, including future access to European Union funding opportunities; and calls on the British Government to fully endorse, and to negotiate for, this outcome in discussions on leaving the European Union.’ 

SDLP Party leader Colum Eastwood moved the motion, and argued:

The British Treasury, which is beginning to implement Brexit, has told us that a hard Brexit will cost the British Exchequer between £38 billion and £66 billion a year. What will that mean for Barnett consequentials and the Executive’s already tightened and straitened financial opportunities? What will that mean for us when it happens? People need to understand that, no matter how many glasses of champagne are poured, the British Tory party has no interest and does not care one jot for people in Northern Ireland. I am surprised that people have not learnt that lesson.

Since this happened, we have made it clear that our job here is to stand with the people who voted to remain in the European Union. Our job here is to protect their interests, not the interests of people anywhere else, not the interests of people on a different island or in a different jurisdiction. Our job is to protect people here. That is why we have to ensure that we maintain the four freedoms on the island of Ireland. That is why we have to ensure that our people have the right to move freely around this island and around the European Union. That is why we have to ensure that our businesses can trade freely without tariffs, borders or any impediments to business and growth around this island and the European Union.

That is why we clearly believe that, whilst the new mantra of the British Government is “We will not return to the borders of the past” — I think that that is the line that they keep trotting out — we need to ensure that we explain to people what that actually means. People who argued for Brexit need to be more honest about what that means. If we are not to have a border like we had in the past and if we are not going to control our border at Bridgend, Newry or anywhere across this island, where will we control it? My strong belief is that the only practical place and the best place to control the border into Britain is at Stansted Airport, Heathrow Airport or any port that you want to name, because it will not be possible to do it here.

SDLP Finance Spokesperson, Claire Hanna argued:

The Good Friday Agreement gave Northern Ireland supremacy in deciding our constitutional future. It recognised the dual identity — that people here can be British or Irish or both, as they so choose — and it gave equal status to those identities. Those who shout and roar about supporting this referendum can maybe update their response to the Good Friday Agreement, given that they believe that 52% is an overwhelming majority in this case. Under that interpretation of the Good Friday Agreement and recognising the 56% vote, only Northern Ireland can determine its constitutional status, and it is clear that a clear majority voted to remain.

The SDLP has always stood by the principle of consent, even when it supported a constitutional status that was not of our choosing or our liking. This is not just a technical issue. Please do not underestimate the importance, to nationalism in particular, of unimpeded access to the rest of this island and of the European Union, which was so pivotal in allowing sovereign Ireland and sovereign UK to work together as equals and as partners, underpinned a supernational link between the contracting parties to the agreement and provided validation to Northern nationalists that the two Governments were cooperating with equal status.

The motion was defeated by a single vote, with 46 MLAs supporting it and 47 against. All MLAs who are designated as Nationlist supported it, whilst all Unionist designated MLAs opposed it. The two PBP MLAs voted in both lobbies to have their votes negated. The two Green MLAs voted in favour, as did the Alliance contingent.

SDLP stance

The party had always made clear after the referendum result that it would use any legal, parliamentary and diplomatic options available had to try to protect the will and mandate of the people here. Since the referendum, the SDLP has used contacts in the Party of European Socialists, its sister parties across Europe, to try to make sure that the issues of Northern Ireland are realised and considered in Europe. The SDLP’s stance is that the future which was chosen by the English people was not that chosen by NI citizens. The First Minister in Northern Ireland and the Prime Minister in London must understand and respect this. Brexit will be considered with a determination to defend the Irish national interest, and to strongly advocate Northern Irish interests and needs. The NI Assembly must not consent to Brexit, given its uncertainty for NI and potential negative impact on the peace process and stability of the state. The Assembly should emulate its counterpart in Scotland, and resist any imposition of Brexit by the British government. The party argues for an Irish solution to the European problem. This Assembly and the Executive should now work with the Irish and British Governments to ensure that unique legal status is attained for Northern Ireland in the forthcoming negotiations. This status would ensure that any negative impact of a hard-Brexit would be minimised here.  It would mean that we would retain the four freedoms, including trade and movement, across the island. The party aims to ensure that any new border is around the island of Ireland, and not across it.  If Theresa May argues ‘Brexit means Brexit’, we argue that ‘consent means consent, and remain means remain’.

Issue of Consent

On that basis, the SDLP joined a cross-party legal challenge to Brexit in August 2016, submitting the principle of consent provided by the Good Friday Agreement was breached by the EU referendum. The legal challenge also argued that an equality impact assessment needed to be carried out regarding the impact of Brexit, and that the Assembly should be consulted and hold a vote on whether to invoke Art 50.

The Good Friday Agreement was a peace agreement between the British and Irish governments, and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland pertaining to the governance of Northern Ireland. The negotiations dealt with issues that had caused conflict, most notably the constitutional status of the north. On the constitutional question of whether Northern Ireland should remain in the UK or become part of an united Ireland, it was agreed there would be no change without the consent of the majority of citizens. This was the ‘principle of consent’. This is laid down per para (1)(ii) of the Agreement regarding the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, and the only grounds upon which it might be changed: parties agreed to ‘recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status’. This was provided as an ongoing commitment from both the British and Irish governments. Thus the legal challenge resides on the belief that the principle of consent might have been violated: the British government arguably did not uphold its commitment when holding the EU referendum. The majority of NI citizens did not wish to leave the EU, thus they did not consent to the change in constitutional status of Northern Ireland. The legal challenge was dismissed in the Belfast High Court, but the parties submitted their arguments before the UK Supreme Court in December 2016.

Ongoing quest for Special Status

In October 2016, as SDLP MPs questioned the UK Prime Minister about the impact of Brexit to Northern Ireland, Colum Eastwood went to Westminster to advocate for special status. He said:

“At Prime Minister’s questions today, we were once again subjected to Theresa May’s meaningless mantras on withdrawal from the European Union. She once again said that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and suggested there would be ‘no return to the borders of the past’ in Ireland. Unfortunately, she once again declined to detail what the border of the future will look like.

The British Prime Minister also said that Northern Ireland’s future will be decided peacefully and by consent. She may not have noticed but the people of Northern Ireland have not and will not consent to being forced out of the European Union…

Despite the rose tinted glasses the British Government, and their cheerleaders in the DUP, are wearing, it is communities in Northern Ireland that will be worst affected by withdrawal from Europe.”

In November 2016, to mark 150 days since the referendum, the SDLP published 150 questions for the Executive to answer. The questions ranged from economic and business questions on NI’s place in the single market, social questions on the effects on community and voluntary sectors, education questions on the status and impact on universities, and questions around the security and future faced by the farming community.

As the New Year arrived, Mr Eastwood vowed the SDLP would continue to lead the campaign for Special Status:

“As we collectively look ahead, Brexit remains the most significant threat hanging over this island. The inertia and uncertainty which has characterised the British Government’s and the Executive’s response to the referendum result has crippled confidence. For too long we have all been asked to tag along with meaningless mantras and the singular tactic of ‘wait and see’.

The achievement of special status for Northern Ireland does not require waiting for the conclusion of the overall British negotiation. Working with European partners and in particular with the Irish Government, a deal can be reached to bring certainty and security to this island even if it remains absent in Britain.”

Tick, tock. March 2017 is comng upon us. And my worry about the uncertainty of the impact of Brexit in Northern Ireland increases. I worry about any decline in choice for all citizens, given that withdrawing from the EU and the potential of a ‘hard’ Brexit would result in leaving the single market. This would mean in the end of free movement of people and services.The prospect of losing access to the EU Charter of Rights and Freedoms is worrying. The ECHR as enshrined in the HRA 1998 provides rights protection, but the EU Charter gives wider rights recognition and protection. Equally worrying is that, once outside of the EU, only the HRA 1998 will be present, but the Conservative government is adamant it will be repealed. Human rights protection and equality recognition is essential in NI, given our history of conflict, discrimination and sectarianism. We cannot afford to lose rights protection measures.

Many pro-Leave politicans have waxed lyrical about the opportunities Brexit presents the UK.  Call my cynical, call me pessimistic, but I cannot help but focus on the uncertainity, the loss of EU citizenship, the potential border imposition, of the impact on the NI economy, agri-food industry and farming communities.

And when we know the British government barely has any idea of what deal it hopes to acquire for the UK outside the EU, I am not exactly filled with confidence for the next two years.