The Supreme Court has overwhelmingly rejected an appeal by unionist lawmakers in Northern Ireland to declare the UK region’s post-Brexit trade rules unconstitutional.
In an eight-minute oral ruling, the five judges of the UK’s final constitutional arbitrator found no merit in the case and fully upheld earlier dismissals by the Belfast High Court and the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal.
Wednesday’s ruling found that the Northern Ireland Trade Protocol – a key part of the UK’s withdrawal agreement from the European Union that keeps Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the UK, subject to EU product rules – was valid.
Unionists supporting the case, among them former Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster and the late Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble, argued that the Protocol was invalid on three grounds: it violated the original Act of Union which brought all of Ireland into the United Kingdom; In 1801; It needs democratic support from the Northern Ireland Assembly to go ahead; And such a vote would certainly require majority Unionist support.
But the judges completely sided with Belfast’s two earlier rulings.
They point out that the Act of Union has been amended many times over the past two centuries, including Northern Ireland itself in 1921. It was legal, they concluded, given parliamentary approval for a protocol agreement to once again amend the Act. Change.
They agree with earlier rulings that no vote by any of the UK’s regional bodies, including the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, is required to proceed with a UK-EU deal containing the Protocol trade deal.
And they rejected the unionists’ ultimate contention that any Stormont vote on maintaining the Protocol trading system must require the support of a majority of its unionist members. Although UK regulations for launching the protocol stipulate that Stormont can vote on whether to keep the system in place by the end of 2024, this democratic test will only require the support of a simple majority of members.
Unionists are outnumbered in the Stormont chamber by Irish nationalists and middle-ground politicians, who generally support the protocol, mainly on the grounds that it hinders cross-border trade with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member. This means the 2024 vote – which would require a functioning assembly – is all but guaranteed to produce a protocol outcome.
The Democratic Unionist Party is refusing to form a new cross-community government at Stormont unless the UK “replaces” the protocol. Talks between London and Brussels are said to be close to progressing on a compromise that would reduce, but maintain, the need for checks on goods arriving at Northern Ireland ports from Britain.