The withdrawal of the UK from the EU will have a profound effect on the legal and constitutional underpinning of the present jurisdiction of Northern Ireland, its relations with the Irish state and UK-Ireland bi-lateral relations. The UK and Ireland’s common membership of the EU was an assumption in the Belfast Good Friday Agreement (BFGA) and the UK’s adherence to EU law regulates the powers and legislative operations of the devolved institutions. The equal rights of Irish and British citizens, a principle of the BFGA, in great part relies on the equal rights of both as having EU citizenship. The lack of significant border regulation is largely due to common membership of the EU, North and South, as well as the improved security situation. Many equality and anti-discrimination provisions in Northern Ireland, which have particular importance in a divided society, rely on EU law. For more detail on the human rights implications of Brexit see CAJ’s conference report ‘Brexiting and Rights‘.
All of these impacts could have a destabilising effect on the constitutional, political and legal settlement that, in the main, ended the violent political conflict which devastated the people of Northern Ireland and gravely affected those in the rest of the UK and Ireland. While it is unlikely that any one particular effect of leaving the EU would destroy the peace settlement, the cumulative impact could begin to unravel it. In particular, any diminution in the protection of rights of the people living on the island could reduce trust in the BGFA institutions and any unraveling of the settlement would be disastrous for human rights. A continuing preoccupation of CAJ will therefore be the protection of the integrity of the peace settlement and the various agreements that make it up. Given that violent conflict always involves a bonfire of human rights, protecting the peace settlement is our top priority.