Northern Ireland High Court dismisses Brexit challenge | News | DW | 28.10.2016
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Northern Ireland High Court dismisses Brexit challenge

The High Court in Belfast has ruled that the UK can legislate for Northern Ireland without any special procedure. Two parallel claims had argued that the impact of Brexit challenges Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accords.

Northern Ireland's High Court rejected on Friday a legal challenge to the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union.

The case marks the first legal judgment regarding the Brexit referendum, with politicians and markets keeping a keen eye on proceedings.

The court in Belfast threw out two parallel claims, both of which rested on Northern Ireland's 1998 Good Friday peace accords, which ended three decades of bloodshed and sectarian fighting . The first claim, brought by a cross-party group of politicians, argued that under the peace agreement Northern Ireland's constitutional arrangements can only be altered with the consent of its residents.

The second claim, brought by veteran victims' rights campaigner Raymond McCord, challenged the impact of Brexit on the Northern Ireland peace process. There are fears that Britain's withdrawal from the EU could lead to the reintroduction of border controls with the Republic of Ireland, which is an EU member and not a part of the UK.

However, Judge Paul Maguire dismissed the application, ruling that neither Northern Ireland's parliament nor its laws could override the British government. It was "difficult to see how the court can overlook the importance of the terms in which the 1998 Act are cast or to deviate from what to date has been plain, namely that the United Kingdom parliament has retained to itself the ability to legislate for Northern Ireland," Maguire said. "While the wind of change may be about to blow, the precise direction in which it will blow cannot yet be determined so there is a level of uncertainty."

UK Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed the ruling; a spokesman said it would allow the British government "to proceed to trigger Article 50 [the formal process of rescinding EU membership] as planned" by the end of March.

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However, the Belfast court said it would defer to the English courts whether the British government has a "Royal Prerogative" to invoke Article 50 without the explicit backing of the UK parliament.

Appeal process

McCord said immediately after the ruling that he would appeal the High Court's decision, bringing the challenge to the Supreme Court in London, the UK's highest judicial body.

"We didn't expect to win today because this was always going to an appeal," McCord's lawyer, Ciaran O'Hare said. "We are disappointed but today was a skirmish, the main battle is yet to come."

Representatives for the cross-party group said they would mull whether to appeal over the coming days. "We are disappointed but it remains our duty to protect the people of Northern Ireland," he said.

In June 23 Brexit referendum, 52 percent of the UK population voted for Britain to leave the EU. However, within Northern Ireland, 56 percent voted to remain.

Schottland Nicola Sturgeon (Reuters/R. Cheyne)

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has pushed for a second plebiscite on Scottish independence from the UK

As England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate legal systems within the UK, other legal challenges to the Brexit vote are under way elsewhere in the UK. The case in Belfast serves as a crucial first judgment on the legal disputes surrounding the issue. The case before the Supreme Court will rule on whether May can trigger Article 50 without consulting parliament.

The ruling might also have crucial implications for Scotland. Its devolved government has argued that it too should have a say on Brexit, as its population also voted to remain in the EU. The ruling Scottish National Party, led by Nicola Sturgeon has drafted a legislation for a second independence referendum from the UK, which it says gives the country an option to protect its position within the EU.

dm/sms (Reuters, AFP)

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