Self government

Protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s right to self-government

Although there is some appreciation of the difficulties caused by the protocol which the EU has seen fit to impose on Northern Ireland in connection with Brexit, the scale of the difficulties has been, and continues to be , massively underestimated. A clear example of this trend is provided by the Protocol Sub-Committee of the Lords European Affairs Committee. While it is encouraging that the Committee has recognized that there is a democratic problem with the Protocol that merits consideration, the manner in which the Committee has characterized the difficulty as a “democratic deficit” is deeply problematic.

When talking about EU-related challenges, the term “democratic deficit” has a well-established meaning that refers to a difficulty of a completely different order than that which affects Northern Ireland as a result of the protocol. It concerns Member States and their electorates (and not jurisdictions like the UK, and in this case Northern Ireland, which are not part of the EU) and stems from the fact that a large number of decisions are taken at a supranational level for which it is difficult for national parliaments to ensure accountability and yet for which the powers of the European Parliament are either too weak or too inaccessible to voters who instinctively seek accountability on a more immediate national basis rather than a distant supranational one.

But above all, while the democratic deficit is frustrating, it in no way leaves the peoples of the EU without democratic rights. There is a European Parliament representing the citizens of the EU in and through which they can seek and do seek, to some extent, to hold European governance to account and citizens can, of course, seek to hold the EU to account through their national governments, which are fully represented in EU institutions.

By contrast, the nature and extent of the democratic problems resulting from the EU Protocol on Northern Ireland are of a different order altogether. Instead of presenting us with a challenge that weakens democratic accountability, creating a shortfall that must be filled, the Protocol completely removes representative democracy from Northern Ireland in respect of some 300 legislative areas. The two scenarios – democratic difficulties resulting from EU membership and democratic problems resulting from the NI Protocol – are therefore like chalk and cheese. The latter requires a completely different characterization…

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Teresa R. Cabrera

The author Teresa R. Cabrera