I thank the committee for this opportunity to present the Centre for Cross Border Studies' views on the implications of the recent UK referendum decision for the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions. If the committee is agreeable, I will present a summary of the statement prepared by our director, Ruth Taillon, who unfortunately was not able to be present with us here today.
As I believe the members will be aware, the Centre for Cross Border Studies was established in 1999 to support and promote cross-Border co-operation on the island in the context of the imperative for cross-Border co-operation embedded in the Agreement. Strand two was and is a reflection of the centrality of the Border to the conflict and, in turn, to the peace process. Much of the public debate since the referendum has focused on the physical Border and whether it will be hard or soft. While we agree that there is a strong consensus among most people and their political representatives that there should be no return to the Border of the past, which at one time was the most militarised border in Europe, we would certainly share concerns about any outcome of the negotiations that would result in the land Border becoming a barrier to free movement in any way.
Prior to the referendum there were already indications of the potential for the Border to become a focus for increased political tensions. All academic commentators have also expressed serious concerns about the implications of the referendum decision for the peace process. The Centre for Cross Border Studies shares many of these concerns about the possible implications for the stability of the peace process. We are also alarmed at the prospect of changes to the Agreement and its institutions that could arise as a result of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
The Agreement specifically provides, under strand two, Article 17, for the North-South Ministerial Council, NSMC, to facilitate co-operation and co-ordination in EU matters. The NSMC’s remit in this area would clearly be altered by the UK’s exit from the European Union. However, rather than its EU role becoming redundant, it may become of greater importance, providing a mechanism to address emerging impacts of the withdrawal process. In addition, provision for the views of the NSMC to be represented at relevant EU meetings through Irish Government Ministers and officials could provide a continuing platform for the Northern Ireland Executive to raise issues and have an input to EU policy-making.
The future operation and development of the North-South implementation bodies would clearly be challenged with Northern Ireland outside the European Union. The presumed ineligibility of Northern Ireland for continued access to EU Structural Funds would appear to end the current role of the special European Union programmes board, SEUPB, after the closure of the 2014-2020 programmes, although it could find a continuing role in the delivery of funding schemes for co-operation between EU members states and non-EU members states or other funding mechanisms that the Governments may want to consider. The remit of InterTradeIreland to promote cross-Border business and trade would also face considerable challenges in the event of the UK having restricted access to the Single Market post-Brexit. In the longer term, growing policy divergence between the UK and the Republic would potentially impact on the work of safefood, Waterways Ireland, and the Loughs Agency. Regardless of policy changes, the day-to-day operation of the bodies, which draw staff from both sides of the Border, would be complicated by any departure by the UK from EU employment law.
The east-west institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement, including the British-Irish Council, would face similar challenges in the delivery of their EU remit.
While not directly linked to the withdrawal from membership of the European Union, we are also very concerned about the proposed withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, which could place Britain in breach of its international obligations under the Good Friday Agreement.
The repeal of the Human Rights Act could require revisions of the Good Friday Agreement and of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, especially if its proposed replacement – a bill of rights and responsibilities – is not recognised as being fully compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Centre for Cross Border Studies and a number of other organisations involved in cross-Border co-operation have come together to discuss the challenges for cross-Border co-operation in the context of the referendum decision. We are acutely aware of the centrality of the Border to the conflict and the dangers that could materialise as a result of uncertainties about the nature of the Border. Also, as migration and citizenship issues emerge in the context of any economic stagnation or decline, social cohesion in the Border region and other disadvantaged areas will likewise be threatened.
Our first concern is that the commitments for cross-Border co-operation embedded in the Good Friday Agreement remain a priority for both the UK and Irish Governments. Cross-Border co-operation will be increasingly important to address the challenges resulting from economic, social and political uncertainty and instability. It is essential that the soft infrastructure that has been established to support cross-Border co-operation – the statutory cross-Border bodies, links at departmental and local government level and within civil society networks and projects - be protected and nurtured.
We are concerned, therefore, to ensure that the interests of the Border region remain central to the deliberations of both the UK and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive prior to and following the notification of Article 50 to the EU. In particular, we believe it essential that measures be taken to ensure the sustainability of cross-Border and transnational projects that are currently funded under EU 2014-2020 programmes; that existing EU directives and regulations that have been transposed into UK or Northern Ireland law should remain in place until such time as any proposed change has been subject to comprehensive territorial, equality and environmental impact assessment; that means should be found to ensure the eligibility of continued participation by Northern Ireland, and those parts of Wales and Scotland currently involved in INTERREG programmes with Ireland, in the European territorial co-operation programmes and transnational programmes such as Horizon 2020, Erasmus+, Life and Europe for Citizens; that whether or not the UK is excluded from EU programmes and projects, the Irish and UK Governments must take steps to ensure new and sufficient resources are available for the social and economic development of the Border region, including local authority and civic society-led projects. On the UK side, additional funding allocations should be derived from the UK’s current contribution to the EU budget that will revert to the Treasury post-withdrawal from the EU and not from the block grant. Additional funding should be allocated by the UK and Irish Governments to the PEACE IV programme specifically to address the challenges of inter-community conflict and cross-Border relationships in the context of political and economic uncertainty and instability arising in the post-referendum context. Finally, a PEACE V programme funded by the UK and Irish Governments should be developed in consultation with civil society organisations and local authorities specifically to address the challenges of inter-community conflict and cross-Border relationships in the context of political and economic uncertainty and instability arising in the context of UK withdrawal from the EU.