The public debate leading up to the EU referendum showed an alarming disregard for the potential of Brexit to disrupt the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. Several commentators have indicated that triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty could precipitate a poll on Irish unification. The situation in the Republic is currently precarious, with a minority government facing an uncertain future, while politics within Northern Ireland has been contradictory at best: the largest party campaigned for Brexit but has sought reassurances from Brussels that EU subsidies will stay in place. This shows that post-conflict Northern Ireland was built through a process whereby actors outside the province became vital to sustaining peace.
Successive efforts at peacebuilding since the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement faltered due to a failure to acknowledge key elements of the conflict. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) embraced a wider understanding, establishing mutually reinforcing internal and external elements of conflict regulation. It emerged as an exemplar of cross-jurisdictional constitutional creativity, relying on a delicate balance of interests, all of which could be jeopardised should there be any significant disruption to the agreement. Research by AudienceNet indicates that a slight majority of UK voters felt that Brexit would either have no effect on the GFA or would have a positive effect on Northern Ireland. But insufficient attention was paid to Northern Ireland in the overall debate, and the evidence suggests that Brexit has disruptive potential on several counts.
The GFA is composed of three broad strands: the internal settlement, the North-South dimension and the British-Irish dimension. The first strand stipulates that internal institutions in Northern Ireland should be run through a system of ‘consociational democracy’, with cross-community executive power-sharing; proportionality between communities in the allocation of positions throughout the government and public sector; and veto rights for minority groupings within government. The UK government has, since 1998, adopted a position of “benign disinterest”, ie it has no preference for a particular political or constitutional outcome. Brexit precipitates a stark change in the UK’s constitutional landscape, with potentially serious ramifications. The GFA enshrined both a protection of parallel consent, whereby decisions require the consent of a majority of both unionists and nationalists, and qualified majority voting. While such a settlement does not contain a particular legal impediment to Britain taking Northern Ireland out of the EU, the political risks Brexit brings have the capacity to undermine both parallel consent and the spirit of bilateralism on which the deal was based, because while a majority of Northern Irish voters opted to stay in the EU, they were outvoted by the UK as a whole.
The internal institutions are supported through the workings of strands two and three of the GFA. The cause of the conflict lay in the competing claims to sovereignty over Northern Ireland between the UK and Ireland and the GFA endeavoured to balance the relationship between them. Strand two allowed for an all-Ireland component in the form of the North-South Ministerial Council and a post-Brexit hard border could undermine this portion of the accord. Strand three is grounded in the East-West axis with the establishment of the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Constitutionally and legally, the British-Irish bodies hold no hierarchy over the North-South bodies. The UK cannot unilaterally revoke the powers of the North-South bodies without violating the terms of the GFA treaty. Until negotiations begin, the impact of Brexit on this balance will remain unclear. At the very least, it undermines the UK’s claim of “benign disinterest”.
The experience of EU membership was pivotal in softening Westphalian conceptions of statehood, normalising ideas like pooled sovereignty which had been absent from mainstream opinion pre-1973. EU legislative processes and the GFA are both grounded in consensual politics. When Brexit negotiations begin in earnest, EU leaders would do well to maintain this ethos. AudienceNet research has found that 52 per cent of German and 45 per cent of French voters think their governments should make the border between Ireland and the UK a “special case” to preserve stability. The same body of research found that a quarter in each country would like for their government to push for the toughest position during Brexit negotiations, ie the WTO rules. The next highest support was for the less disruptive Norwegian option. For the UK to uphold its treaty obligations under the GFA, Norway will be the most favourable model. By contrast, the WTO option could create serious difficulties for people in the border region.
Parity between Northern Ireland’s communities came with institutional equilibrium and constructive British-Irish intergovernmental cooperation. These were, in turn, assisted by a more consensual landscape provided by the evolution of attitudes within both countries, born of their experience within the EU. Now EU partners are tasked with maintaining the integrity of both the European project and the GFA amid the multiplicity of interests at play. Northern Ireland was ignored during the referendum campaign. To do so during the negotiations could be dangerous.
Image: Tobi Gaulke