Call to bridge the divide between Belfast and Brussels – POLITICO



Irish MEPs want to boost Northern Ireland’s ability to talk directly with Brussels. But their ideas — spelled out in a letter this month to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and other EU leaders — have yet to elicit any official response.

The letter, written by MEP Barry Andrews and co-signed by eight other Irish lawmakers, reflects the reality that Northern Ireland remains subject to the rules of the European single market but, thanks to Brexit, no longer has any representation in EU institutions. It argues this represents both a democratic deficit and a potential danger to the region’s hard-won peace accord.

“It is our firm belief that ‘connective tissue’ needs to be developed between Northern Ireland and the EU, to ensure that the EU institutions are sensitized to local circumstances and in recognition of the fact that threats to the GFA [Good Friday Agreement] can come from both London and Brussels,” Andrews writes.

The MEPs want the European Parliament to create a fixed delegation to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the parliamentary bedrock for its cross-community Executive created under the terms of the peace pact. The goal would be to keep Northern Ireland politicians informed of “upcoming legislative developments that will affect Northern Ireland.”

They also want the European Parliament to strengthen links with Northern Ireland’s Human Rights Commission and Equality Commission, which the Good Friday Agreement tasked with defending the European Convention on Human Rights — one of many elements of the 1998 pact that presumed continued U.K. membership of the EU. Many of Northern Ireland’s 1.8 million residents hold Irish passports and are, therefore, EU citizens.

Andrews also proposes strengthening other existing channels that he argues will build the “connective tissue” between leaders in Belfast and Brussels.

Northern Ireland has no shortage of venues for cross-border dialogue thanks to the Good Friday peace agreement. It sought to institutionalize cooperation in three delicately balanced layers: within Northern Ireland between its British unionist and Irish nationalist blocs; among administrations operating within the British Isles, the framework that unionists cherish; and between both parts of Ireland, which the nationalists hope will promote eventual Irish reunification.

As a result, the leaders of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government seek regularly to build common ground in two parallel institutions: a British-Irish Council that brings together leaders of eight administrations from Scotland to the Channel Islands; and a North-South Ministerial Council devoted to coordinating policies between the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland.

The Good Friday deal billed these North-South meetings as a key forum for discussing EU policies. The MEPs propose more direct EU input into these events so that Northern Ireland ministers can “anticipate at an ‘upstream’ stage the possible implications of proposed EU regulations.”

The trouble is, while most unionist voters backed Brexit, they broadly loathe the trade deal’s creation of a customs “sea border” that splits the U.K. As a result, the ruling Democratic Unionist Party has begun boycotting all North-South meetings as part of its demand for the Northern Ireland protocol to be scrapped.

When asked about the MEPs’ ideas, a senior DUP official laughed with incredulity. “Of course they want us building connections with Brussels. Haven’t they noticed we want absolutely nothing to do with Brussels?”

Andrews told POLITICO he had yet to receive any official response from EU leaders, but he has discussed the letter’s ideas with Northern Ireland business leaders and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, which represents moderate Irish nationalist opinion. “Not unionists, which I intend to do,” he said.

Analysts say the MEPs’ letter contains important proposals.

“Any and all pragmatic ways to ensure Northern Ireland’s voice is heard within the EU, so that issues can be pre-empted and worked on quickly to resolve them, should be explored,” said Michael Collins, director general of the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin.

But he noted that Brexit itself bakes in a fundamental “democratic deficit” for Northern Ireland — because 56 percent of its voters didn’t want it. Research has found this included 85 percent of Irish nationalists and 40 percent of British unionists.

“It must be remembered,” he told POLITICO, “that the views of the people of Northern Ireland ultimately didn’t count.”

This insight is from POLITICO’s Brexit Files newsletter, a daily afternoon digest of the best coverage and analysis of Britain’s decision to leave the EU available to Brexit Transition Pro subscribers. To request a trial email [email protected].





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