Two recent parliamentary debates – in Westminster and Dail Eireann – have dealt with significant issues related to the position of Northern Ireland in the context of Brexit.
UK House of Commons Debate
In a wide-ranging debate in the House of Commons on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill on 8 February, a number of amendments were tabled relating to the specific position of Northern Ireland, where a majority of the electorate voted Remain in the June referendum.
Amendment 86, proposed for the SDLP by its three MPs – Margaret Ritchie, Alastair McDonnell and Mark Durkan – argued that the formal notification should be exercised with regard to the constitutional, institutional and rights provisions of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, including preservation of “acquired rights in Northern Ireland under European Union law.”
A considerable number of members spoke on this amendment, with SDLP, Labour Party and Scottish National Party speakers backing the text and those from the Conservative and Democratic Unionist parties taking the opposite position.
The Labour Party MP, Conor McGinn, said that the Good Friday Agreement is at the heart of the progress made in Northern Ireland, and that Brexit introduced an element of grave uncertainty. Mr. McGinn argued: “[…] the drafting and signing of the Good Friday agreement, and all the architecture surrounding it, were in the context of both the United Kingdom and Ireland being members of the European Union. I hope that the Government will commit themselves to ensuring that some of the provisions of the Good Friday agreement will remain in place when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, and to upholding them in both letter and spirit.”
For the DUP, Ian Paisley, intervened: “He is asking (the) Government to commit themselves to the principles that are enshrined in the various agreements, but given that he accepts that they have committed themselves to all those principles—as, indeed, have the Opposition—why is the new clause necessary?
Mark Durkan for the SDLP noted the calls to respect the UK’s referendum result, but said that the GFA too was the result of an “articulated act of self-determination by the Irish people”, and that the European context of the agreement must be recognised and respected: “The fact is that although the Good Friday agreement has been wrongly dismissed by others, the EU is mentioned in it. It is there in the key preamble of the agreement between the Government of the UK and the Government of Ireland, which refers to their common membership of the EU. No one should be under any misapprehension that there are implications for the Good Friday agreement.”
The SDLP amendment was rejected in the Commons vote – as was the case for all amendments to the Bill – by 327 votes to 288. However, in his contribution to the debate the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, insisted that the Government takes protecting Northern Ireland very seriously and guarantees the retention of the common travel area.
In Dáil Éireann on 15 February, Sinn Fein introduced a Motion calling on the Government to “negotiate for Northern Ireland to be designated with a special status within the EU and for the whole island of Ireland to remain within the EU together.” Fianna Fail tabled a similar Motion which was accepted by Sinn Fein and advanced as a single text.
Opening the debate, Gerry Adams asked “does the Taoiseach believe it is beyond the ability of the people of this island to shape out a special arrangement for the North arising from Brexit or is he afraid of having to negotiate with the British on an issue which they have already set their face against?”
For the Government, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, made an important intervention and sought to amend the Motion, specifically rejecting the concept of ‘special status’. Minister Flanagan argued that it could give rise to concerns for other EU partners about precedents that might be set elsewhere: “This would risk undermining the efforts of the Government to specifically address and mitigate the very real impacts facing our island and the people of Northern Ireland, in particular, due to the withdrawal of the UK from the Union. While I entirely understand the rationale, the fact is that such a proposal would unnecessarily distract from work to secure arrangements which reflect the genuinely unique situation of Northern Ireland.”
Fianna Fail’s new Brexit spokesman, Stephen Donnelly, indicated that his party agreed with the call for Northern Ireland to be designated with a special status within the EU. His party’s Motion accepted the thrust of the Sinn Fein Motion, adding detail and calling on the Government “to secure the ongoing realisation of rights of citizens in Northern Ireland to avail of Irish and, by consequence, EU citizenship; to safeguard the four freedoms of movement of goods, workers, capital and services; to protect ongoing access to EU institutions, including the Court of Justice of the European Union, the European Court of Human Rights and EU sectoral agreements; and to protect and ensure the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements.”
The motion further called on the Government to enter any forthcoming negotiations in co-operation with Ireland’s EU colleagues recognising the vote of the majority of citizens in Northern Ireland to remain within the EU; and to ensure that the elements relating to the Common Travel Area in Protocol 20, which gave the UK and Ireland their exception from the Schengen acquis, and specifically allows for the preservation of the Common Travel Area, is respected fully and upheld.
In his contribution to the debate, the Minister of State for European Affairs, Dara Murphy, said that “we do not find much disagreement about our message apart from the real world difficulty with which we must deal concerning the Good Friday Agreement.”
The Dail rejected the Government text by 84 votes to 59 and adopted the Sinn Fein/ Fianna Fail Motion by 77 votes to 65.
The two debates give rise to important questions about the forthcoming Brexit negotiations and highlight the complexity of the Irish element of the Brexit process. The welcome expressions of UK Government concern and goodwill in relation to Ireland and Northern Ireland are not underpinned by formal parliamentary commitments, leading to obvious frustrations in both parts of the island. However, the Motion adopted by Dáil Éireann on special status for Northern Ireland is clearly not seen as a practical negotiating tactic by the Government, as reflected in Minister Dara Murphy’s reference to ‘real world difficulty’. The Government’s approach to the development of the EU’s platform for the talks with the UK will be watched with great interest.