Government entitled to use royal prerogative to exit the EU, court hears

Posted By: October 06, 2016

The Irish News, Thursday, October 6, 2016.

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Raymond McCord at Belfast High Court. Picture by Hugh Russell.

THE British government is legally entitled to use royal prerogative powers to

carry out the people’s will to quit the European Union, the High Court heard yesterday.

A judge was told the power is “common currency” in making and withdrawing from international treaties – and was the method used to join the EU.

Rejecting claims that Parliament is being sidestepped in the process, a government lawyer insisted the legislative body will be involved in any law changes resulting from Brexit.

Tony McGleenan QC said: “There is no legal impediment to a government giving effect to the will of the people as expressed in the referendum by using a prerogative power.”

The barrister was responding in landmark legal bids to stop Britain from leaving the EU.

Separate cases have been brought by a victims campaigner and a cross-party group of MLAs.

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May has announced she will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the formal process for confirming the Britain’s departure, by the end of March 2017.

But proceedings in Belfast claim the move is unlawful without first securing parliamentary authorization.

Even though the June 23 referendum backed Brexit, a 56 per cent majority of voters in Northern Ireland wanted to remain.

Raymond McCord, above right, whose son Raymond was murdered by the UVF in north Belfast in 1997, believes they have a legal right to resist being forced out.

His lawyers argue that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement has given the Northern Irish public sole sovereignty on the issue.

They also claimed Brexit would have a “catastrophic effect” on the peace process, causing constitutional upheaval amid renewed calls for a united Ireland.

Politicians including Alliance MLA David Ford, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, Sinn Féin assembly member John O’Dowd and Steven Agnew of the Green Party are also seeking to judicially review the British government’s move towards quitting the EU. The MLAs, whose case is backed by representatives of the voluntary and community sector in Northern Ireland, claim an act of parliament is required before Brexit can take place.

They also contend that the assembly should be consulted and asked for its consent.

However, Mr McGleenan insisted the case was about an administrative step in leaving an international treaty.

“It’s not illegitimate, unorthodox or undemocratic to use prerogative power in that context,” he told the court.

Dismissing claims that the method was in decline, the barrister said: “This is the common currency the executive uses to deal with these matters [international treaties].”

“The United Kingdom joined the European Union through use of the prerogative power and it can withdraw using the same power in the anticipated Article 50 process,” he said.

“Prerogative power will be used to commence the process of negotiations.

“That process of negotiations may ultimately result, depending on the outcome, in the modification of a number of laws. At that juncture parliament will be appropriately involved in making amendments and repeals as necessary to the relevant statutes.

“The terms of the Northern Ireland Act cannot properly be seen as any constraint on the exercise of the royal prerogative power.” The hearing continues.