Intergovernmental cooperation essential to limit Brexit damage to Northern Ireland

Posted on: 28 June 2018

The difficulties surrounding the Northern Irish border issue in Brexit negotiations could have been eased by stronger intergovernmental cross-border cooperation, according to Trinity academic Dr Etain Tannam.

The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, established as part of the Good Friday Agreement, has been underutilised since 2007, and so these bilateral frameworks were not equipped to deal with the challenges to British-Irish relations posed by the Brexit referendum in 2016, according to Dr Tannam, writing in a paper published this month in a special edition of the journal Ethnopolitics to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

In the paper, Dr Tannam, Associate Professor, International Peace Studies, Trinity, examines the impact of the Good Friday Agreement on cross-border cooperation between 2001 and 2017 and the “significant strains” that Brexit places on British-Irish relations. She argues that a re-energised British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference will be essential to ensure cooperation in the absence of UK membership of the EU.

The paper notes that British-Irish relations have improved dramatically since the 1980s and in the last 20 years the Good Friday Agreement has had a significant positive impact on cross-border civil service cooperation with a particular flourishing in British-Irish relations after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and again after events such as Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 2011. However this cooperation reflected more ad hoc initiatives from both governments and formalised regular meetings via the Intergovernmental Conference as envisioned in Strand Three of the Good Friday Agreement did not occur, Dr Tannam explains.

These institutions, to an extent, became “victims of the success of the peace process”, according to Dr Tannam:

“Once violence ended there was a perception from both governments that they could lessen their involvement and indeed devolution implied that this was the essential outcome to empower Northern Irish political parties. In addition, the bilateral and cross-border institutions were always sensitive for unionists and governments were aware of that sensitivity. Economic crises, particularly in Ireland also meant that all attention was focused on other issues from 2009.”

The Brexit referendum in 2016 and the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2017 have highlighted the need for British-Irish engagement at the highest level, Dr Tannam argues.

Dr Tannam points out that the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, representing both governments has not met since 2007. Moreover, as Dr Tannam has shown in other research with Peace Studies colleagues Dr David Mitchell and Long Room Hub early career researcher, Sarah Wallace, the number of UK-Irish prime ministerial meetings has fallen since 2009. In 2009, there were nine meetings and in 2017, despite Brexit’s challenges, there were only three.

“Inadequate use of the Good Friday Agreement’s intergovernmental institutions meant that in the face of Brexit, levels of communication and cooperation were damaged and there was no embedded bilateral institutional framework that legally obliged both governments to meet. Stronger cooperation in advance of Brexit may have avoided the apparent intractability of the border issue in the current UK-Brexit negotiations.”

The challenges posed by Brexit could be overcome, Dr Tannam argues, if both the UK and Irish governments now focus on strengthening formal intergovernmental relationships by the establishment of a legally enshrined institutionalised relationship, whether by empowering the Good Friday Agreement’s institutions or creating a new legal agreement.

“The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference institution is well-suited to dealing with bilateral issues such as Brexit and should be re-energised if not now, then for the post-Brexit period and a formalised intergovernmental relationship. It will be essential to ensure cooperation in the absence of UK membership of the EU.”

With little hope of progress in Brexit negotiations at this week’s European Council summit, strong intergovernmental cooperation, with strong UK government engagement and adherence to the principles that underpin the Good Friday Agreement must be prioritised for the all-important October summit, according to Dr Tannam.

“It is essential that the Good Friday Agreement’s institutions are fully developed and utilised in the post-Brexit era, but the ‘Catch 22’ is whether the UK has the capacity and will to engage with its Irish counterpart. In the meantime, as well as negotiating with UK officials,  Irish officials will be lobbying intensively to maintain Northern Ireland at the top of the EU’s agenda for the October summit,  given the migration crisis, US protectionism  and all the other issues faced by EU. There is a busy summer ahead.”

A digital copy of the paper “Intergovernmental and Cross-Border Civil Service Cooperation: The Good Friday Agreement and Brexit” can be accessed here. The paper forms part of a special edition of the journal ‘Ethnopolitics’ to mark the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, edited by Dr Tannam.

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