At a Sinn Fein conference on a united Ireland in Dublin, Gerry Adams has claimed Brexit is a “ hostile action” that will “destroy the Good Friday Agreement”, although adding that “special status” would not take Northern Ireland out of the UK.
Is this to be a sticking point in any talks to restore the Assembly? If so he’d be setting the bar very high and over quite a long timescale for resolution.
Although it has been taken to mean a form of continuing association with the EU, he does not define what “special status” actually means to him. His other claim that Theresa May’s reported (but not confirmed) aim to “ remove Britain from the European Convention of Human Rights” is said to be postponed to after Brexit or the 2020 election.
Mr Adams is undoubtedly rubbing a sore point here, where concerns are felt well beyond Sinn Fein. Mrs May would face an even bigger fight in the Commons and the legal establishment than over Art 50. One of the first things she did on becoming PM was to postpone the subject sine die. A debate on how Northern Ireland and Scotland would be affected by any notional new “British Bill of Rights” has still to be held and the consent of the Assembly and even the Irish government may well be needed to make any changes to the existing Human Rights Act which is indeed a cornerstone of the GFA .
Later But as I’ve just been reminded by Pete Baker, there is no plan to remove the UK from the Convention. (I know, I know Gerry, this legal stuff is very complicated). What is being considered is a British Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act embedded in the GFA, to reduce the scope to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, while remaining in the Convention on which the Court bases its rulings, unless in the unlikely event the Convention’s parent body the Council of Europe were to declare that the British Bill was incompatible with Convention rights. May has in mind her frustrations as Home Secretary in trying to expel Islamist militants like Abu Qatada and the ECtHR ruling requiring the UK to give prisoners the vote. Northern Ireland doesn’t figure in her thoughts, no doubt a problem in itself.
Nationalists would obviously not be in favour of anything called a “British Bill” to start with. Although the Convention is outside the EU, the two are linked. The controversy may seem legalistic, as it’s inconceivable that any actual rights in Northern Ireland would be affected , but it gives Sinn Fein a lot of scope to make political trouble for years. This is another example of how Northern Ireland and specifically English Tory concerns are at odds.
The choice of the Tyrone MLA and outgoing Health minister Michelle O’Neill to make the closing speech at the conference seems to confirm that she is about to supersede the former favourite Conor Murphy as the leader of Sinn Fein in the North.
She said the island would be better served by a single economy. Among the changes Sinn Féin wants she said was a dedicated Minister of State in the Irish Government with responsibility towards working for a United Ireland.
“Nobody has anything to fear from the republicans’ view of a united Ireland,” she said.
Asked afterwards about speculation about her impending elevation, Ms O’Neill declined to comment other than to say the decision would be made on Monday
Ms O’Neill is youngish, clean of paramilitary association, largely untried in the top rank, and of course a woman. Her emergence in a leading role, if it happens, will be entirely opaque. It doesn’t follow that she would take the lead in any post-election negotiations. Gerry Adams may keep to the centre stage he has occupied since just before Martin McGuinness’s retirement.
The Brexit imbroglio also creates a great opportunity for Sinn Fein to press the other Dublin parties to adopt a more assertive stance on a future united Ireland; and if this doesn’t emerge, to force an existential crisis over the Assembly.
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