The only way to preserve the environmental integrity of Northern Ireland and the Republic is through a “coherent system” of environmental management post-Brexit, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
Appearing before the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement committee on Thursday, Alison Hough, a barrister and law lecturer at Athlone Institute of Technology, said that what happens in the environment of one jurisdiction “unavoidably impacts” the other.
Ms Hough was commissioned by the Environmental Pillar and NIEL (Northern Ireland Environment Link) to produce an independent report on the role of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in maintaining cross-border environmental co-operation on the island of Ireland post-Brexit.
In presenting her key findings to the committee, the barrister said that the shared landscape and its ecology are the bedrock of the GFA objectives.
Despite political arrangements, there are no borders in nature.Alison Hough
“The drafters of the GFA understood this, which is why they nominated the environment as one of the areas of cross-border co-operation,” she added.
“They understood what was at stake if we did not preserve our shared environmental heritage, in terms of the peace process, economic growth and social wellbeing of the people of both Northern Ireland and Ireland.
“Despite political arrangements, there are no borders in nature, and what happens in the environment of one jurisdiction unavoidably impacts the other.
“The only way to preserve the environmental integrity of both Northern Ireland and Ireland is through a coherent system of environmental management.
“In particular, regulatory divergence between the two jurisdictions, or uneven enforcement resulting in ‘de facto’ regulatory divergence represents the biggest threat to maintaining the environmental co-operation.”
She called for the management between Northern Ireland and Ireland to be prioritised in the negotiations on a future relationship, in order to safeguard the GFA environmental co-operation.
She recommended that an independent environmental regulator be established which would have responsibility for Northern Ireland in the absence of EU enforcement.
She added that if the Northern Ireland institutions are up and running, the North-South Ministerial Council should be re-established as a “matter of priority” to discuss policy and regulatory alignment on environmental matters.
She also said that the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference should be given a greater budget, a website, increased secretariat, more frequent meetings and any other resources needed to “render it functional”, and that maintaining common environmental policy be added to its remit.
She also called for a Good Friday Agreement mechanism to be established on a legislative basis with responsibility for monitoring the implementation of the accord.
Oonagh Duggan, the assistant head of policy and advocacy at BirdWatch Ireland, said that a “dynamic regulatory alignment of environmental standards” would be the best scenario for the island of Ireland.
Ms Duggan, who was representing the Irish Environmental Pillar, said that no independent environment agency operates in Northern Ireland.
“This lack of a controlling body could mean loose representation in environmental rules and an inability to prevent runaway cross-border pollution,” she said.
“The best scenario for the environment on the island of Ireland would be dynamic regulatory alignment of environmental standards meaning that the EU and the UK standards evolve in tune with each other.”
Ms Hough outlined the dangers of a no-deal Brexit.
“In many of the features of a no-deal Brexit, presumably there will be no trade relationship in place on the date of Brexit which would result in a situation where there is no option but to place a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which would interfere with an awful lot of the cross-border co-operation,” she said
“It would fundamentally break up that co-operation and it would be a disaster for us.”