Brexit: The only real influence now lies with Members of Parliament
The Supreme Court's majority decision stating that the UK government cannot trigger Article 50 without an Act of Parliament is a welcome affirmation of Parliamentary sovereignty. MPs from across the UK, together with peers in the House of Lords, will now legislate to take the formal first step required to begin the Brexit process.
The government's immediate response was to signal that it will bring forward a brief Bill 'within days' in order to hasten the legislative process so that the government can meet its timetable of triggering Article 50 before the end of March. Though it is unlikely that the House of Commons will frustrate that target, it is more likely to run into problems in the House of Lords where Conservative peers are in the minority. Some parties have already stated their intention to put down amendments to the Bill, not least the SNP which has drawn up 50 substantive amendments to the as yet unpublished Bill.
Like Scotland, NI voted to remain in the EU, so how will our MPs, more accurately the 14 who attend the House of Commons, react? Unlike Scotland, the majority of our attending MPs, the eight DUP members, are Brexiteers and will be relied upon to support the government in the division lobbies, which gives them a strong hand both now and in the future as the negotiations to leave the EU unfold. To be clear, Parliament is the only legislative arena within which the Article 50 process will be subject to formal, forensic scrutiny (and where the final Brexit deal will be put to a binding vote).
This is because the 11 Supreme Court Justices agreed unanimously that the triggering of Article 50 does not compel the government to require legislative consent from our Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly: a judgment that came as a relief to Theresa May who is only too well aware that a majority of our MLAs, Welsh AMs and Scotland's MSPs are opposed to Brexit. This does not mean that the devolved legislatures are prevented from debating and voting on the Article 50 process, but whatever the outcomes in Cardiff, Edinburgh or Stormont (if it is up and running) may be, they will not, because of the Court's ruling, exert any legislative constraints on the UK Parliament. So, the focus is well and truly on our MPs (and peers) as Parliament plays out this high political drama. Apart from debates in the Commons and Lords, our MPs are enabled to scrutinise government proposals via Parliament's extensive committee system, including the 21-strong 'Exiting the EU' Select Committee, on which both Mark Durkan and Sammy Wilson serve. As for Sinn Fein, its abstention from the UK Parliament means that it has to exert its influence by proxy, lobbying the Secretary of State, trusting that its voice will be heard, and pressuring the Irish government to act on behalf of NI's interests, many of which, not least the vexed border question, are shared by Dublin. The inter-governmental forum in which our ministers, with the exception of the First and Deputy First Ministers, do have a voice on Brexit is the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) of the UK, which brings together the UK government and the devolved Executives. Although Stormont is now dissolved, the NI ministers remain in post until midnight on election day, March 2, and so can participate in any JMC meetings that are scheduled between now and then.
Rick Wilford is Professor of Politics at Queen's University, Belfast