OPINION: Protecting the democratic voice for citizens in Northern Ireland within the EU

The European Parliament in Strasbourg
Dr Francis Costello and Ciaran White

THE approach taken by the Irish government to date during the EU's Brexit negotiations is laudable.

It has been effective in ensuring support from EU member states and its officials in keeping issues relating to the Irish border at the forefront.

In line with the Taoiseach's comments in Brussels last month noting the overwhelming public support given throughout the island in the 1998 referendums to the Good Friday Agreement, we respectfully submit it is also now crucial that the Irish government heighten its focus on protecting that agreement and backs measures to protect the democratic rights of all in Northern Ireland to their European Union citizenship.

The Good Friday Agreement was itself an international agreement which both the Irish and British governments are obliged to uphold and was endorsed by the United Nations and European Union.

The increasing evidence that a more vocal element in Theresa May's cabinet are openly advocating Britain withdrawing from this obligation must be addressed if we are not to see the progress has been made over the past two decades in building peace and stability undermined.

Given that those who oppose Brexit in Northern Ireland include Catholics and Protestants, we also must state that narrow appeals made to the Irish government asking it to intercede only for the interests of nationalists are misplaced.

Democratically-inspired efforts to deal effectively with the impact of Brexit on the entire island of Ireland must include initiatives to protect all citizens.

Towards that a proactive effort by the Irish government is required, supported by all the parties in the Republic and Northern Ireland, to ensure continued representation in the European Parliament for the citizens of Northern Ireland.

A key commitment made by the UK in the December 8 joint report of the UK and EU negotiators is that it will maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and customs union “which now or in the future support north-south cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 (Good Friday) agreement".

If a UK-EU agreement cannot achieve that then ‘full alignment' in relation to those matters will mean that some EU laws, at least, will have to be complied with in Northern Ireland.

But if this occurs it would mean that Northern Ireland would, post-Brexit, be left in a position of maintaining alignment with legislation into which it had no input because Northern Ireland would have no representation in Europe.

This can be ameliorated by the democratic election of representatives to the EU Parliament.

We propose that the Irish government supports the creation of a six-seat Ulster constituency for the European Parliament.

This could be guaranteed by an internationally supervised election that would allow the three seats for Northern Ireland to continue as at present, while the other three counties of Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal would have three to four seats, perhaps with one of those derived from the two additional seats the Republic is expected to gain post-Brexit.

This proposal seeks to compromise no citizen's identity. It would compel no-one to vote any more than in any other election. But it will allow those in Northern Ireland in the interest of peace, stability and the greater wider commonwealth the democratic right to continue to elect representatives that will give them a voice in European policy and continued protection as EU citizens.

Furthermore, this proposal would be consistent, we believe, with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and with the UK government's stated reaffirmation of "Northern Ireland's position as an integral part of the United Kingdom, consistent with the principle of consent". Within that context unionists concerns would also be met.

While this proposal is unique it is because the issue of the protection of democratic rights resulting from Brexit requires it.

While it may not sit with an orthodox understanding of entitlement to European Parliamentary representation, it is also not without precedent: presently, France allows MEPs to be elected from a specially-created constituency composed of its overseas territories, some areas of which are not part of the EU, from as far away as the Pacific Ocean.

* Professor Francis Costello is a former Fellow of Queen's University's Centre for Conflict Transformation who also served in the Clinton administration. Ciaran White is a Senior Lecturer in Law at Ulster University and a practising barrister.

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