A new Constitutional Settlement for Northern Ireland: Queries from International Law

287px-Uk_map_home_nations (1)This post was jointly written by regular contributor Aoife O’Donoghue and Ben Warwick. Ben is a Graduate Teaching Assistant and PhD candidate at Durham Law School. His research centres on resource constraints and the implementation of economic and social rights. 

The starting gun has been fired on constitutional debate in the UK. The prospect of Scottish independence, potentially increased powers for devolved governments, a new English Assembly, a re-formed relationship with human rights and a reformulation of the relationship with the EU, are all being more or less vigorously discussed. Whilst there has been some public debate about the constitutional issues facing the UK, there remain a number of covert agendas. Each of these agendas represents both threats and opportunities for Northern Ireland. The tendency to define constitutional changes by reference to internal factors is a misguided one. Such an approach neglects the significant external implications of internal debates. Rather, changes to the UK’s constitutional settlement must be situated in the broader regional and international political and economic context. The realities of modern globalisation and commerce, mean that external bodies and countries are both influenced by, and influencers of, ‘internal’ debates and thus cannot be ignored.

For England, and the UK, the electoral fortunes of the Conservative party lurk beneath the surface. Under threat from UKIP, and in arguably long-term decline, the Tories have sought to both capitalise and stave off threats from the Right. The party have undoubtedly seen an opportunity to separate unpopularity in Scotland (the party has just one MP out of 59 potential seats and in contrast to Labour), from relative success in England. Significant devolution to an English Assembly would likely leave the Conservatives (or at least the right of British politics) with a majority. This opportunism can explain changes of heart on devolution.

In Scotland, the covert agendas belong(ed) to the markets. Dominant economic actors vocally campaign(ed) against independence on the basis that it would harm jobs and the prosperity of Scots. This was an important consideration for many, but for the Boards of Directors and CEOs making the threats it was not the primary motivation. Rather, the continued profitability and favourable tax regime for corporations were the unspoken motivation for such a fight against Scottish independence. Companies were concerned, not with the general welfare of the Scots, but with the potential disruption to their healthy profits.

As ever for Northern Ireland, much remains unsaid. There is fear of covert and/or incremental changes that erode cultural identities and (Unionist/Nationalist) identity politics remain an on-going and dominating factor in debates. Besides the internal ‘blockages’, there are also external implications including repercussions for Northern Ireland’s voice in debates on human rights, economic powers, and the division of power in the UK. This is crucial, as a strong voice within the UK affects the province’s capacity to deal with the issues of austerity, social security, rural and urban poverty, policing and employment.

At the Conservative Party Conference in October there was a clearly voiced intention to introduce changes to the UK Human Rights Act (HRA) and the relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights and the associated European Court of Human Rights. It was stated that if changes to that relationship could not be made, a Conservative Government would withdraw from the Convention. As has been noted elsewhere this is a particularly pertinent issue for Northern Ireland as the Good Friday Agreement places the introduction of the HRA as central to its settlement.  Under the settlement the UK agreed to:

complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), with direct access to the courts, and remedies for breach of the Convention,  including power for the courts to overrule Assembly legislation on grounds of inconsistency.

The Irish Government, in return, agreed to incorporate the ECHR into its law and there is no suggestion of a change. The Good Friday Agreement is partially a bilateral agreement between the UK and Ireland, the Conservative proposals would, if enacted, violate international law. Besides legality, courtesy would require the UK to consult with Ireland about such changes, perhaps with a view to releasing Ireland from its obligations. Given that there was a vote in both the Republic and Northern Ireland on the Good Friday Agreement, it is perhaps democratically questionable to change its terms without consulting both constituencies again.

Bordering on the EU

Of further consideration is the potential of the UK leaving the EU and its impact. As the Republic is outside Schengen there is little problem with the open status of the Ireland-UK border. Without wishing to ape the rather ridiculous depictions of what a border with an independent Scotland would look like, should the UK leave the EU and Ireland enters Schengen, it would make the open border problematic. In particular with a dominant aim of UK political actors being to stop inward migration, the border could not be as porous.  Whilst the Irish are (legally) not to be treated as ‘foreigners’ under the Ireland Act 1949 other EU citizens entitled to continue to come to Ireland may pose practical and political difficulties. Further, the entitlement of those born in Northern Ireland to dual citizenship is problematic. If an individual chose to register for an Irish passport they would be able to maintain their EU citizenship even if the UK left. This would be in stark contrast to other UK passport holders in Scotland, England or Wales.

Leaving the EU would also impact upon the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Agreement currently being negotiated with the USA. While there is not space here to discuss the many problematic elements of this trade deal, a UK that sat outside of the EU would leave Northern Ireland without preferential access to the USA. Leaving the EU would also put the UK in an entirely different position within the World Trade Organisation. While currently the UK is an individual member, all of its negotiations are conducted as one EU block. Therefore while the UK would stay as a member of the WTO, it would negotiate as a standalone state rather than part of the world’s biggest market. Again, as the Republic would remain part of the EU’s block in the WTO, it would maintain the many and varied benefits that the EU maintains due to its global economic power.

Goodbye Good Friday

A further indication of the external nuances of the UK’s current constitutional soul-searching lies with border polls. Whilst there has been much talk of a border poll in Northern Ireland, this has largely neglected the voice of the Republic. The Good Friday Agreement mandated a right to self-determination for the people of the Republic in the following terms:

it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.

It is by no means certain that a vote in the Republic on the matter of unification would bring about a majority of yes voters. No vote took place when East Germany rejoined West Germany, partly because the German Constitution never gave up its claim to all of its territory. The Irish situation differs as a result of the changes to Articles 2 & 3 of the Irish Constitution. Further, it was by no means certain that the West Germans would vote to integrate their East German neighbours. The requirement of self-determination for North and South would mean that even if Northern Ireland voted for a unification of Ireland, there would be no certainty of a united Ireland

There are undoubtedly significant international effects that flow from a renegotiation of the UK’s constitutional position(s). Yet the current internalised approach to considering the constitutional issues is masking the broader effects. From human rights, to the EU, to the TTIP and the Good Friday Agreement, there are significant ramifications that urgently need discussed. Having these debates by reference to the Conservative Party’s self-interest, economic hegemonies, or identity politics can only lead to a transient conclusion to the international issues.

A new Constitutional Settlement for Northern Ireland: Queries from International Law