Claims Brexit may re-ignite conflict dubbed ‘reckless and outrageous’

Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey
Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey

Fresh claims that Brexit could spark a return to violence in Northern Ireland have been labelled “reckless” and “outrageous” by an Ulster Unionist peer.

Legal academics have warned that leaving the EU will have detrimental consequences for the peace process, increase divisions in the Province and hamper relations with the Irish Republic.

The study by BrexitLawNI – made up of researchers from Queen’s University, Belfast, Ulster University, and the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) – also contends Brexit will weaken human rights and equality protections.

But former UUP leader Lord Empey, one of the key figures in the Belfast Agreement negotiations, has firmly rejected many of the report’s assertions.

He said the suggestion that leaving the EU could spark a return to violence “can only provide an excuse for those who have never accepted the peace process and the arrangements arising from it”.

Lord Empey added: “To assert that fellow Irishmen and women are prepared to kill their neighbours or blow their legs off because we are leaving the EU (an institution which Sinn Fein opposed us joining in the 1970s) is outrageous.

“To shape public policy out of fear of terrorism is to abandon the rule of law and democracy, and would be the path to anarchy.”

Professor Rory O’Connell, director of the Transitional Justice Institute at Ulster University, warned Brexit risks unpicking the Belfast Agreement, while Brian Gormally, director of the CAJ, said it could “re-ignite the conflict”.

Project leader Professor Colin Harvey from the School of Law at Queen’s said Brexit was a “profound constitutional moment for Northern Ireland and the island of Ireland”.

The study comes following 18 months of research involving interviews, consultations and town hall-style events.

Researchers also met with politicians and officials in Belfast, London, Dublin and Brussels as well as with business representatives, trade unions and community activists.

The academics say they detect “widespread anxiety” about the long-term impact of Brexit across Ireland.

They have called for a “bespoke solution for this region”.

Recommendations from the study include that Northern Ireland remains within the customs union and single market.

It also warns against a hard border, arguing that would “further undermine political relations” and could become a target for dissident republicans.

But Lord Empey said there was “no necessity” for a hard border, adding: “There already is a currency border, a fiscal border and a jurisdictional border and that will remain, but it does not need physical infrastructure to continue.”

He also felt the question of how to address the issue of trade across the Irish border post-Brexit has been “grossly exaggerated”, adding: “The amount of trade across this border in EU terms is minute. Most of the Irish Republic’s exports go to Great Britain which as well as being the Republic’s biggest customer is also the land bridge for Irish exports to the EU and beyond.”

With regard to movement of people, the unionist peer said no changes are anticipated on the island of Ireland after Brexit.

“Both governments already operate regimes to monitor illegal immigration and that will continue,” he continued.