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Explainer: Here's how the consent vote in the North will work

How and when will elected reps get to cast their vote and why is it a thorny issue for the DUP?

A majority vote would see the arrangements set out in the new deal continue for a period of eight years.
A majority vote would see the arrangements set out in the new deal continue for a period of eight years.
Image: Shutterstock/I'm friday

IT’S BEEN A big day for Brexit, with a deal finally being agreed by both UK and EU sides today. 

While many are still urging caution, with the deal yet to get Westminster approval, there are a number of changes to this agreement compared to the one former UK Prime Minister Theresa May got over the line.

Northern Ireland will remain aligned to a set of EU rules under this deal.

On the issue of customs, there will still be a customs and regulatory border on the Irish sea. British authorities can apply tariffs to goods entering the UK , as long as goods entering Northern Ireland are not at risk of crossing the border and entering the single market. 

If goods are going to enter the single market by travelling across the border from the North across the border into Ireland, EU tariffs will be applied. 

The role of Stormont in deciding Northern Ireland’s regulations, one of the sticking points for the DUP, was described by the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier as a “cornerstone of the newly agreed approach”. 

Why was consent a sticking point?

Both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste had concerns about proposals tabled by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, namely the suggestion of letting Stormont decide whether to opt in to the proposed all-island regulatory zone post-Brexit.

Stormont voting mechanisms allow a bloc of either unionist or nationalist Assembly members to block a decision, even if the majority vote for it.

Simon Coveney said that a minority cannot have a veto in such matters, though DUP leader Arlene Foster said the proposals would ensure that Northern Ireland could not be “trapped at the whim of Dublin or the EU”.

Today, Leo Varadkar said this new deal will ensure that only with the consent of the elected representatives of Northern Ireland will this arrangement continue into the future.

So, how does this consent issue work?

If the deal is passed by Westminster on Saturday, the UK will leave the EU, as scheduled on 31 October. 

At that point, the transition period will kick in, and will last until December 2020. There is an option for an additional extension of one to two years.

The UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he will not seek one, but if he were to change his mind, he would have to seek one by the 31 July 2020.

But working on the assumption that no extension is needed, these new consent rules would be in place for four years from the end of the Brexit transition period of December 2020.

So when will the first vote take place?

From the period of October and December 2024, the first vote will held.

How does the vote work?

Elected members of the Northern Ireland Assembly will be asked to vote on whether they want the arrangements to continue or whether they want to leave the arrangements behind.

This is not a vote that falls under the strict definitions of the Good Friday Agreement, because it is actually an international agreement, and therefore is a matter for the UK government. The distinction here is this voting mechanism is not a devolved matter for Northern Ireland alone.

The vote works whereby if a simple majority of MLAs present for the vote decide to continue with the arrangements (say 48 to 51 votes) then the arrangements will continue for another four years.

However, if a majority of elected MLAs present for the vote (60% or more) decide to continue with the arrangements, then they will continue for a period of eight years before another vote is held.

This is known as a “cross community” agreement which will give an extended period of certainty in the North.

How many votes are held every four or eight years?

There is just one vote held each time. Those voting in Stormont declare if they are in the nationalist, unionist or other bloc. By looking at the result of this one vote, it can be determined whether there has been a majority / cross-community approval or whether there has been a simple majority. 

What if the Assembly votes to opt out of the arrangement?

The deal provides for a two-year cooling off period after that decision is taken. An EU-UK joint committee is then set up and will be tasked with ensuring the terms of the Good Friday Agreement are protected. 

But Stormont hasn’t sat since early 2017 – what happens if it is still shut down when a vote is due to take place?

If Stormont gets up and running only to collapse again when a vote is due to be held, the current deal sets out that the same procedure will take place, regardless.

A vote would take place outside the normal structures of Stormont. The Assembly, made up of MLAs, would still be elected representatives, and therefore can have their say.

Everyone seems to be on board but the DUP, why?

Unlike arrangements under the Good Friday Agreement, there will be no option for a veto, as there usually would be in these types of votes in Stormont.

The DUP believes the new arrangements will become the settled position in Northern Ireland, stating that the new deal “drives a coach and horses through the professed sanctity of the Belfast Agreement”.

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