Northern Ireland’s Transition and the Constitution of the UK
By Colin Harvey
Context matters in law. Northern Ireland has a devolved executive and legislature; but the constitutional transition should not be viewed exclusively as a tale of devolution within the UK. To do so would be to neglect the particular circumstances, and thus risk perpetuating an impoverished understanding of constitutional change. The danger is that you miss the fact that this is a society still emerging from a violent conflict, during which the British state was a proactive participant (something too often skipped in constitutional narratives).
The complex mechanisms in place (that reflect internal, North-South and East-West dimensions) are intended to be interlocking and interdependent; stability is therefore always relative in such an ethno-nationally contested arena. Sharing experience from other devolved settings is helpful, and many similar legal and political issues arise. The notion of ‘constitutional statutes’, however, takes on a distinctive meaning in Northern Ireland; devolution was forged and re-emerged after decades of conflict and during a peace process. The ‘Brexit’ debate, and all that flows from it, enters this unique (within the UK) constitutional setting. It would be quite remarkable if this context is not legally and politically relevant.