I thank the committee for inviting me. I am representing the Irish Environmental Pillar. The Environmental Pillar is comprised of 26 independent environmental non-governmental organisations, NGOs, working together to represent the views of the Irish environmental sector. The work of our members covers a broad range of areas including habitat conservation, wildlife protection, environmental education, sustainability, waste and energy issues, as well as environmental campaigning and advocacy. Given the island of Ireland is a single biogeographic unit, we collaborate closely with our colleagues in Northern Ireland.
This is especially true when it comes to Brexit. The report about which Alison Hough spoke was jointly commissioned by the Environmental Pillar and the Northern Ireland Environment Link, NIEL. NIEL is the networking and forum body for organisations interested in the natural and built environment of Northern Ireland. The close collaboration between the Environmental Pillar and NIEL is evidence of the extraordinary transformation we have seen since the Troubles ended. Peace is not to be taken for granted and is reinforced daily by the contacts and interactions that occur across communities. These interactions are often framed in and by our shared and common environment. Brexit cannot be allowed to threaten this.
Cross-Border co-operation on the island of Ireland is embedded in the legislative framework of EU membership, the acquis communitaire. This framework has been the driver of environmental improvements on the island of Ireland, facilitating cross-Border co-operation between both governmental and non-governmental organisations on a broad range of environmental issues. The issue of maintaining an open border has dominated Brexit discussions and there is every indication that it will continue to play a central role when discussions move on to the next phase after 31 October. An open border with aligned policies on either side is key to facilitating continued co-operation. Similarly, a no-deal Brexit poses a severe risk to the environment on the island of Ireland.
Businesses in Northern Ireland could be placed at a competitive disadvantage if faced with cheaper imports from outside the EU and could seek greater flexibility in the implementation of the environmental rules protecting shared species, habitats, and water bodies, with damaging implications for the island. Any dilution of standards in Northern Ireland could see corresponding pressure for dilution or weaker implementation south of the Border. Birds do not know what a border is. I work for BirdWatch Ireland and we are acutely aware of this. At present, the European Commission and the European Court of Justice provide oversight and enforcement of the EU environmental rules. A no-deal Brexit would mean the UK would no longer be subject to any of these mechanisms, with insufficient time to put new arrangements in place to replicate their function. This would be even worse on the island of Ireland as there is no independent environment agency in Northern Ireland and no functioning Northern Ireland Executive to put one in place. This lack of a controlling body could mean looser implementation of environmental rules and an inability to prevent runaway cross-Border pollution.
There are several shared protected nature sites, or Natura 2000 sites, on the island of Ireland. These sites are protected by the birds and habitats directives and are supported by a range of other directives, including the Water Framework Directive and directives focused on environmental assessment, tackling wildlife crime and assessing environmental liability. With no deal, these sites could be severely undermined without a clear way to continue the protection and monitoring currently in place.
These are only some of the environmental risks posed by a no-deal Brexit. There are more which can be foreseen, but also many that are hard to predict. While the Good Friday Agreement includes the environment as an area of co-operation with a defined mechanism for doing this, it remains untested. In the short term, the risks are best addressed by avoiding a no-deal Brexit and ensuring that the commitments to the environment included in the withdrawal agreement, such as the level playing field, are not jeopardised. In the long term, the best scenario for the environment on the island of Ireland would be dynamic regulatory alignment of environmental standards, meaning that EU and UK standards evolve in tune with each other upwards; we sincerely hope not downwards. Any future relationship must include this alignment and should describe robust mechanisms for effective oversight and enforcement.
Dynamic regulatory alignment of environmental standards between Northern Ireland and Ireland post Brexit would support continued environmental co-operation and policy coherence on the island of Ireland and ensure a level playing field, reducing the risks of environmental dumping across an open, frictionless border. With regard to alignment to support continued co-operation and policy coherence, the challenges associated with fostering close North-South co-operation following decades of conflict should not be underestimated. As Alison Hough has described, the Good Friday-Belfast Agreement has created "a framework for mutual co-operation and interdependence" of which environmental co-operation is an important element. The agreement has facilitated North-South co-operation on environmental issues and, as we have heard, there is more that could be done to utilise the structures created by it.
North-South co-operation is heavily reliant on a common EU regulatory framework, the acquis. The common framework makes it easier for both sides to work together and to align. The recently-made-public mapping exercise conducted by the UK and EU negotiators identified over 100 areas of co-operation that could be affected by a divergence in standards, including water quality, flood risk management, air quality and nature-biodiversity protection. The exercise concluded that North-South co-operation relies "to a significant extent, on the common European Union legal and policy framework" and identified regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and Ireland as "the biggest single risk to its continuation and future development". Maintaining this co-operation post Brexit, which is largely dependent on a combination of political will and "the driving force of EU legislation", will undoubtedly be challenging. In her report, Alison Hough concludes that a high degree of regulatory alignment would be "the ideal context" for maintaining North-South co-operation on environmental issues post Brexit. To reiterate, close North-South co-operation is essential to securing environmental benefits on the island of Ireland, through regulatory coherence and managing any transboundary impacts. We encourage the committee to advocate for continued coherence in the cross-Border legislative framework.
All sides in the Brexit negotiations committed to maintaining an open border post Brexit, including continued frictionless trade in goods and free movement of persons. In the absence of alternative solutions, the backstop has been designed to guarantee that this continues. The backstop allows for frictionless EU market access without compliance with all EU rules. In order to avoid the need for regulatory checks along the Irish Border, under the terms of the backstop Northern Ireland will be required to stay aligned with some Single Market rules, namely, those for which compliance would otherwise be physically checked at the Border in areas such as technical regulation of goods and agricultural standards. This raises the issue of Northern Ireland being at risk from environmental dumping and EU rules being undermined. Businesses in Northern Ireland could gain a competitive advantage over businesses in Ireland by becoming an attractive destination for access to both the EU and UK markets, while only having to comply with a subset of the EU's Single Market rules.
To reiterate, to avoid a competitive disadvantage on either side of the Border, Ireland must ensure the environmental laws are aligned, including having in place effective and robust means of enforcement. This means Ireland advocating within EU co-ordination in the course of any negotiations with the UK about a future relationship. Under the terms of the backstop, Northern Ireland will be required to align with some rules in return for maintaining an open Irish Border. There will be some additional checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but no additional checks on goods moving in the other direction. This could undermine the level playing field on the island of Ireland, which could be addressed if Northern Ireland was to dynamically align with all EU environmental rules. If we are to avoid environmental harm and damage to the island of Ireland, there must be dynamic alignment of rules on either side of the Border. This is not just a matter of protecting the environment, it is about maintaining the peace, prosperity and protection on the communities who enjoy and share that single island environment.