The problems of Brexit are big enough without nurturing new grievances against the Brits

In his eloquent contributions to the Mount Stewart conversations, (warm thanks to Alan), Fintan O’Toole in terms stated as fact that the people had exercised an irreversible act of sovereignty in approving the Good Friday Agreement enshrined in international treaty. This had been violated by the “reckless” imposition of Brexit on the Northern Ireland.  The UK government had no right to try to take Northern Ireland out of the EU, because a majority voted to Remain.  Not only that, his argument implies that the UK had no right to hold the referendum in Northern Ireland in the first place. If so why wasn’t it legally challenged in advance? It is surely too late to argue that the local Remain votes give retrospective vetoes to Scotland and Northern Ireland against leaving the EU.

What Fintan asserts as fact is – in fact- contested. A different version says that the GFA and the enabling Northern Ireland Act shows Irish self determination being exercised to approve the three stranded institutions, various human rights provisions and the principle of   northern consent to Irish unity, supported by a parallel referendum in the Republic.  Brexit leaves the GFA intact. Its achievements were bilateral, between the British and Irish with US help and support from the EU in the form of peace funding.  Irish unity would be decided by the people of Ireland north and south, not the British, whose role is limited to allowing a referendum in the north if they believe a majority in favour of unity might exist. The trigger remains with Westminster.

But of course the framers of the GFA never contemplated an end to British EU membership. It is not the GFA which has been violated but the context of EU membership, approved by successive Irish referendums ( notoriously only the second on  the Lisbon Treaty,) and confirmed by the British referendum of 1975 which has now been reversed.

True, the GFA gives equal rights to Irish and British citizens resident in Northern Ireland. Irish citizens may therefore be regarded as continuing citizens of the EU after Brexit . But the exercise of such rights is limited according to the territory they live and work in, as is the case for citizens of any state living in another.

The rest of British constitutional architecture remains in place for Northern Ireland.  Arguably the GFA did not it set any further limitations on the sovereignty of the British parliament. In theory that sovereignty remains absolute. Westminster could repeal the NI Act and seek derogation from the international treaty. By the same argument Parliament could overturn the Brexit referendum, as it can only be advisory according to the sovereignty of Parliament argument, as the Lib Dems, some Labour and a throng of pro –Remain lawyers argue.

In practice however the referendums – on the GFA, the EU and  Brexit – are treated as binding and the NI Act is entrenched. That does not mean however that there never ever could be another referendum as Irish  and now British experience  confirms.

The McCord case  is one of three cases which seek to test the validity of applying Brexit to Northern Ireland. The intention is to refer it to the UK Supreme Court to be heard along with comparable English cases by the end of the year. The immediate aim is to require the formal consent of the same sovereign Parliament before triggering Article 50.  But behind the literal case is a view that Brexit cannot legally apply to NI at all because of the majority for Remain. The SNP might agree.

For what it’s worth my belief after consulting experts is that the Supreme Court will decide that this is a matter for Parliament not the courts. If so, we would return to arguing the politics of the case where I am at one with Fintan.

The danger of his exaggerated argument is that it might create a new Irish nationalist grievance against the perfidious British for “moving the goal posts.” Jonathan Powell  put it better when he said that  Conservative Brexiteers  never  took Ireland into account at all – a characteristic of British political behaviour throughout the ages.

There are also dangers in the heightened rhetoric of the new young SDLP leader Colum Eastwood about the referendum result. His rather hysterical dark hints of unspecified action are made against a historic background of political boycott and abstention by both unionists and nationalists. This could only widen the political vacuum for dissidents and other mischief makers to fill.  It is unwise for a party leader to go further into a cul de sac without trying to find a way out.

Finding solutions to soften Brexit is surely what all parties and governments north and south, east and west should be doing rather than playing up grievances.  If you can reverse one referendum result as both the UK and Ireland have done,  presumably you can reverse another.  As I and others have commented there may be other get -out- of- gaol cards  through developing devolution. Spreading fears of Armageddon gets us nowhere.





Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

  • Kevin Breslin

    So basically you are saying Parliamentary procedure should be abandoned when faced with domestic terrorism or war?

  • John Collins

    Well I have not noticed that so much in the West of Ireland but Killarney can be lethally expensive, but if you move out to the equally attractive town of Kenmare the fare is every bit as good, and the tariffs are usually far more reasonable.

  • Thomas

    Hi just randomly here but my great granda was shot dead by the ira in 1922 he was from north belfast i dont know much about him.
    His 2nd name was moore either jack or john

  • Thomas

    If i can remember checking up a few years ago it might have been rioting to do with twaddel or something lol he was from flex street i think i would love to know if theres any kind of info on him.
    Think the family turned my uncle was born a prod but he was in jail in the 40s for something to do with the ira lol.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Albania, Turkey and 22 EU countries and their EEA buddies Norway and Iceland … You know the type of countries that UKIP seem to worry about.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    There is information usually in the newspapers for anyone killed either in riots or in sectarian targeting. One source I know of on the web lists those killed:

    As you can see with a search, there is a 17 year old protestant man called John Moore listed, of 79 Hooker Street who was shot on 24th May.

    I’ve been trying to discover information myself about a William Moore, a Chemist in York Street who was shot through the jaw in an exchange between snipers and the specials, but as he was only wounded he is not on any list I’ve found. One of the very best descriptions of the troubles in 1922 is to be found in an article in the 2010 issue of “Irish Historical Studies”, “‘The most terrible assassination that has yet stained the name of Belfast’: the McMahon murders in context” by Tim Wilson, IHS, Vol. 37, No. 145 (May 2010), pp. 83-106. Other recent books such as Pearse Lawlor’s “The Outrages 1920-1922” are well worth looking at.

  • chrisjones2

    Yes but we buy much much more from them than they do from us and in negotiations its sectoral eg the Germans will want to protect around 25% of their car manufacturing that goes to the UK

  • Kevin Breslin

    Oh the trade deficit thing … you do realize that that the Republic of Ireland buys more from the United Kingdom than the United Kingdom buys from it.

    If the boring “We’re the consumer, we buy German cars” argument sinks in, (it’s very generous to call it an “argument” when it’s nothing more than a biased opinion for an imaginary straw man negotiation) then the “We’re the consumer, we buy British machinery” also applies to Ireland.

    Why because the Republic of Ireland has a trade deficit (i.e. buys more from it than sells to it) with the United Kingdom.

    That’s worth repeating in case you forgot.

    So effectively if you really did believe (or indeed understand) the “We buy German cars” meme as British leverage over the European Union , then by the same “meme” The Republic of Ireland has massive leverage over the United Kingdom.×285.jpg

    Ask an economic expert, rather than fall for the political spiel.

    This is all very reductionist for the modern world.

  • Katyusha

    The little people have spoken and the corrupt elite establishment cant do anything about it.

    Ha. Firstly, they could just refuse to pass an act to leave the EU. The little people don’t get a direct say on the passage of law in the UK, it’s up to Parliament – and is still up to Parliament even after the referendum.

    Secondly, UKIP’s popularity and the initial momentum behind the Brexit campaign owe a lot to the press. For how long have the majority of British newspapers railed against the EU? If UKIP had not been given publicity well above their standing, like say the Greens, they would have struggled to capture the public imagination. There isn’t a lot of grassroots politics in the UK, it’s mostly fought in the media – on TV and in the newspapers.

    Yet when you find yourself on the same side as the Murdoch press, at the same time you proclaim the death of the “MSM propaganda machine”

  • Thomas

    Hey was a bit worse for wear last night thanks for your reply.
    Talking to mum today he was actually my great grand dads brother lol.
    She also said on my grannies side of the family another person died that year hes more famous called halfpenny he was from very close to hooker street as well.
    But more interested in the john moore person at the minute i will check those links out.

  • cu chulainn

    “But behind the literal case is a view that Brexit cannot legally apply to NI at all because of the majority for Remain.”

    This isn’t the case. The case is that the British government signed up to an agreement to work in partnership with the Republic as members of the EU. The majority in NI against Brexit is only indicative that people still wish them to continue with the GFA, and the UK cannot bring NI (at least) out of the EU while the GFA is still in force. Now they can just renege on the GFA and do what they like, but at present they are pretending there isn’t an elephant in the room and that they can pretend that Brexit has nothing to do with the GFA. Hopefully the court case will fix this, but given the record of British courts I wouldn’t bet on it.

  • Thomas

    John moore was my great grand dads brother i dont know about william moore lol
    Incase of any confusion

  • George W Harvey

    Well then, you have no option but to leave the UK if your interests align with the EU more. The UK’s combined membership is ending, so you will need to negotiate your own membership as Northern Ireland (after gaining independence) or try to join up with the Republic.

    Though I honestly think that is unlikely and Northern Ireland will prefer to remain in the UK for now.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Glad I can have been of help, Thomas. As far as I can make out, the list I’ve linked to is not exhaustive, but I’m pleased to have found your great-grand uncle’s record there. The list is appended to a book that came out later in 1922, and offers a grueling but accurate record of many terrible deaths in Belfast earlier that year, and back to 1920.