Brexit: A Threat to the Northern Ireland Peace Process
On June 23rd 2016, the UK will vote on whether to stay or leave the EU. The debate has largely been one of immigration and economics with little focus on peace, specifically peace in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland is unique in the Brexit debate; although it has the smallest population of any UK region, at around 1.8 million people, it has arguably more to lose than the rest of UK if Britain votes to leave the EU. For one Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK to share a land border with another EU state, the Republic of Ireland. It also relies more heavily on European development money than the rest of the UK. It is recovering from a thirty year conflict whose peace process relies upon the EU and its institutions. Violence dominated Northern Ireland for thirty years, with over 3600 people losing their lives in a clash of neighbours, between those who supported the union with Britain and those who favoured a united Ireland. This period is known as the Troubles.
The Troubles were a dark time in British and Irish history with atrocities committed on both sides. The turning point was the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998. The agreement was signed by the major unionist and nationalist political parties, as well as the British and Irish governments. This agreement was based upon and held together by the recognition of the rights of the individual and minority, which include protection not by the states of Britain or Ireland, but by a third party, trusted and neutral, Europe.
What Europe provided to the agreement was the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and access to the European Court of Human Rights, enshrined in which is the right of the European Court to overrule the Assembly when it is in breach of the ECHR.
These rights are the foundation of the peace process; they are the glue that holds together the peace in Northern Ireland.
The ECHR holds up the two crucial pillars for continued peace in Northern Ireland, namely police reform and the right to challenge the law before the European Court of Human Rights.
The police needed to be reformed for peace to even be considered. The Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), consisted almost exclusively of unionists, and was seen by the nationalist community as a suppressive force that abused its power and violated their human rights. This made the RUC a target for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and an illegitimate police force for almost half the population.
The RUC was reformed into the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). While the PSNI still faces paramilitary threats, it is seen as a legitimate police force by the vast majority of both communities. This is in part due the fact that police officers in the region are obliged to abide by the ECHR, which is named in the Policing Code of Ethics in relation to upholding the dignity and personal freedoms of all individuals.
The second crucial pillar of peace is the European Court of Human Rights, where individuals or groups can challenge the state or other political powers in the protection of their rights. The British government has been held accountable here many times and has been forced to acknowledge crimes committed during the troubles. These cases are usually brought by victims or the families of victims seeking closure. This duty as a third party goes beyond the legacy of the Troubles, as it has been left to the European courts when democracy fails in Northern Ireland and there is political deadlock, for example the rights of the LGBT community.
The ECHR is so deeply woven into the fabric of the society that emerged after the Good Friday Agreement, and indeed into the agreement itself, that to remove it could undermine the foundations of the peace process. Of course, it’s hard to imagine a total collapse of a Code of Ethics for the PSNI in the event of Brexit, but the current Code would need to be replaced, possibly by a British Bill of Human Rights, which could delegitimise the police force.
If the UK leaves the EU on June 23rd, nobody knows what will happen. Maybe nothing will change for a while, but the basis of peace in Northern Ireland would certainly be weakened and perhaps begin to decay.
The European Convention on Human Rights gave the Good Friday Agreement a legitimacy that neither the British or Irish governments could have provided on their own. It is the cornerstone of the agreement and of its success. It acts as a safeguard for each community to ensure that their rights are protected; its loss would be detrimental to the peace process and to the assumption of rights that the people of Northern Ireland now have along with the confidence that those rights are protected, whatever their religious or political views.