Queen's Policy Engagement

No Return without Reform?

An election that was about Brexit should not be recast as a vote for unprincipled and unconditional return to power-sharing government says Professor Colin Harvey.

No Return without Reform?

This may not be a welcome contribution, given the dominant and suffocating ‘narrative framing’ of the outcome of the Westminster election, but a return to the flawed approach to power-sharing that neglected the values of the Good Friday Agreement on parity of esteem, equality, human rights and social justice will not work, particularly given the post-Brexit world this society is heading towards. An election that was about Brexit should not be recast as a vote for unprincipled and unconditional return to power-sharing government.

It is doubtful that is what people want or will thank anyone for. Time would be better spent in getting this right in the interests of everyone and for the long term.  Solutions to the problems this region faces are there. The impediments to progressive change are clear, and it is plain how these challenges can be remedied. Clarity can be achieved on the major constitutional questions arising as a result of Brexit, and there is no excuse for deferring prudential planning any further.

As appealing as it may sound to some at the moment, return to power-sharing without delivering the necessary rights-based legal reforms, and required levels of clarity and certainty, is not the answer. A better way forward is to strive to address the root causes of the problems that have plagued power-sharing, make sure the special arrangements regarding Brexit are secured, and acknowledge the need for preparation for the constitutional future. Yes, political parties here have their responsibilities, but both governments could and should do much more. A robust and sustainable framework for engaged British-Irish cooperation must be established and persist, including but not limited to the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. That will be in addition to the architecture of the Withdrawal Agreement and Protocol, and essential for the journey that this region is about to embark on. The myth that the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly can resolve all the problems of this post-conflict society is dangerous and divisive. It is a toxic tall tale being spun for short-term political reasons and it is setting power-sharing up for failure.  Just ponder the impact of that and reflect on the scale of the task facing any new administration here.

No one it seems can save Northern Ireland from Brexit; limiting the damage in legally credible ways is the best hope for now. It will be vital that the special arrangements that have been agreed between the EU and UK are implemented effectively in domestic law, policy and practice. Nothing relating to that, as history should teach people, can be taken for granted. Any ambiguities must be resolved, as far as is possible, now. Trusting in political promises is ill-advised; only enforceable legal guarantees will do.

Rights-based and respectful power-sharing government is possible. There is no conflict between that and advancing the necessary work on constitutional change. This island is heading towards referendums that will determine whether this place joins a united Ireland or stays in the union with Britain. That debate includes the option of returning to the EU; the principal way back now for those who prefer full-fat EU membership. Having a view on that, and working to achieve it, is a right that people are guaranteed here. Silly labelling of this constitutional discussion as ‘divisive’ must stop.

The prize of achieving the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements, in all their parts, is simply too valuable to opt for a shortcut that will not end well.

 

Professor Colin Harvey
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Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law in the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast. He has served in several leadership and management roles at Queen’s including: Head of the Law School; Director of the Human Rights Centre; Director of Research (Human Rights); and as a member of Senate.

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