Translating Brexit

13 March 2020 - by Anna Mercer

It has been a while since we talked about Brexit. But it hasn’t gone away you know. Boris may have “got Brexit done” but it’s the detail that now matters as we progress to the next phase.

With the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement into legislation in January, and the move to the transition phase, much attention has been focused on trade deals and what the UK relationship with the EU will be when this process concludes at the end of 2020.

There are several pieces of legislation that now need to be passed in order to “take back control” and establish domestic policy for issues that had previously been determined by EU law. Some of these issues include areas that are devolved matters, namely the Environment Bill, Agriculture Bill and Fisheries Bill; all of which require a common approach yet which, from a Northern Ireland perspective, need to reflect the Protocol and small matter of the Irish border.

There also exists a fundamental challenge of process and scrutiny. The development of these key pieces of legislation, including consultations, took place at a time when Northern Ireland was without a government, and are now passing their way through parliament.

Whilst they will travel through the normal parliamentary process in Westminster, the only input the Northern Ireland Assembly will have is a vote on a Legislative Consent Motion through which they will be asked to accept or reject the clauses which are technically devolved matters. This limited engagement offers no opportunity to shape or improve Westminster legislation, only to rubber stamp it.

The other concern is the fact that the Environment Bill in particular is a piece of enabling legislation, which means that it will lead to the introduction of additional regulations, and could also amend primary legislation – something which is politically unprecedented in Northern Ireland.

With our MLAs back at work only a matter of weeks and playing catch up on the last three years, they have a huge challenge on their hands to ensure that they have sufficient time, resource, and indeed opportunity to scrutinise these key pieces of legislation.

Perhaps there is an opportunity for MLAs and NI MPs to work together to find a way to ensure this process isn’t a "fait accompli".

But time is not on their side. With the legislation already on its way through Westminster, our politicians must act urgently as the impact on organisations, businesses, and more critically, the world around us, is too important to leave to chance.