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Northern Ireland's courtroom Brexit battles

In Northern Ireland, a diverse group of politicians and activists have launched a legal challenge to the UK leaving the EU. Peter Geoghegan reports.

Northern Ireland has seen more than its fair share of courtroom drama over the years - but nothing quite like the case in Belfast's High Court this week. In one corner were lawyers representing the UK government, in the other a disparate group of politicians and activists all attempting to stop Brexit before it has even begun.

The Northern Irish legal challenge to the UK leaving the European Union is a complex one, with no decision likely for weeks. But the case rests on a simple premise - that under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which effectively ended the three-decades-long 'Troubles,' - the devolved Northern Irish parliament must ratify any Brexit deal.

"What we are saying is it fundamentally changes the constitutional position, and that undermines the Good Friday Agreement, which was an international agreement, and also that the devolved assembly would need to give its consent before Article 50 would be triggered," Colum Eastwood, leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and one of the plaintiffs in the case, told DW.

Brexit looms large

There are few places in the UK where Brexit looms as large as Northern Ireland. The circuitous 300-mile-plus boundary with the Irish Republic is Britain's only land border with the European Union.

Since 1994, Brussels has allocated over 2 billion euros ($2.2 billion) to peace projects in Northern Ireland, as well as many more billions in structural funding through regional assistance.

Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, but now faces the prospect of life outside the EU. Campaigner Raymond McCord fears that Brexit could make it even more difficult for victims of the Troubles.

In 1997, his son, Raymond Junior, was murdered by the Ulster Volunteer Force. An investigation by the ombudsman found police had colluded with loyalist paramilitaries in over a dozen similar murders. But no officer has ever been charged in connection with these killings.

"It's hell holding the government to account and getting justice when we are inside the European Union - what will happen outside it?" McCord, who is also involved in the High Court case, told DW.

Brexit is particularly keenly felt in Derry/Londonderry. Almost 8 in 10 voters here backed remain. The border with the Republic of Ireland is just a couple of miles away and every day thousands cross the invisible boundary.

Border worries

Colum Eastwood, who represents Derry in the Stormont assembly, has been "inundated" with concerns from anxious constituents since the Brexit vote. The border issue, unsurprisingly, is their number one worry.

Nordirland Grenze (Getty Images/AFP/P. Faith)

There are concerns that border controls at ports and airports could be reintroduced

"The British government has no idea of what they are doing; they clearly don't have a plan. [Prime Minister] Theresa May says 'Brexit means Brexit' but what does that mean?" says Eastwood.

During the referendum campaign, May said it would be "inconceivable" that there would be border controls. That message has since changed, and Eastwood, like many, believes that the most likely outcome is the introduction of controls at ports and airports.

Such a settlement might be practical but it would not go down well with Northern Ireland's unionist community. "As a believer in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, I refuse to be treated as a second-class citizen in my own country," Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson told DW.

Political concerns

The situation is further complicated by local political concerns. The Democratic Unionist Party - the largest party in Northern Ireland - officially backed Brexit, although its finance minister Simon Hamilton has refused to say publicly how he voted in the referendum. Sinn Fein, the DUP's coalition partners in the power-sharing government in Belfast, advocated a remain vote.

In August, Northern Ireland's first minister Arlene Foster and her deputy, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness, sent a joint letter to Theresa May identifying their Brexit priorities, which included the border and trade. But Foster has rejected calls from the Irish government in Dublin for an all-Ireland Brexit forum.

"There is a lack of willingness to embark on the broad societal conversation about the implications of Brexit," Jonny Byrne, lecturer in politics at the University of Ulster, told DW.

Last month, it emerged that civil servants at Stormont had penned a report before the referendum highlighting some 20 negative consequences of leaving the European Union - but the document was never published.

Eleven of Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies voted to remain, including many with unionist majorities. Stephen Farry, a member of Stormont for the cross-community Alliance party, says some unionists have also been questioning their identity in the wake of the Brexit vote.

Liberal unionists have "been asking what the union means," says Farry. "There's was a pluralist approach to the union; they see themselves as unionists within the European Union. Now that has changed."

'Not seen as integral'

Northern Ireland, however, has been conspicuous by its absence from the wider Brexit debate. Westminster leaders have rarely talked about the impact that leaving the European Union could have on the once restive region.

Theresa May zu Besuch in Irland (picture-alliance/dpa/AA)

Northern Ireland's leaders have voiced their Brexit concerns; however, UK PM Theresa May (center) has been fairly unresponsive

"I don't get much sense that we are seen as that integral - this is very much an English process with three Celtic nations on the fringes to greater or lesser extent. At this stage I don't get the impression of a great deal of activity over how this will affect Northern Ireland," Farry told DW.

Brexit could have a significant economic impact. Northern Ireland is more reliant on agriculture than other parts of the UK. Direct EU payments represent 87 percent of annual income on Northern Ireland's almost 25,000 farms.

"We will be the most impacted region of the UK, yet shockingly we are the least well prepared. If we don't get this right, our voluntary and community sector, our agri-food sector, our SMEs will all suffer," says Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson.

Farry, whose Alliance party is also involved in the High Court case, warns that if a legal challenge to halt Brexit fails, the impact on Northern Ireland will not just be economic.

"Northern Ireland is a contested state or a contested region. We have managed that rather than resolved that. There is a danger that you start to unpick the progress that has been made. The Good Friday Agreement created a space in which people could be a bit Irish, a bit British, a bit Northern Irish; the danger of Brexit is it pushes people back into their identities."

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