Report on the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, Brexit & the Environment

The executive summary of the report is available here:

The full report is available here:

Please see media release below

April 16th, 2019

Unleashing the full potential of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement could address some of the main risks posed by Brexit to the environment of the island of Ireland, a new report has found.

The independent report – commissioned by the Environmental Pillar and Northern Ireland Environment Link – examines the cross-border environmental co-operation supported by the Agreement. [1]

Launched at an event at Leinster House today, the report stresses that firming up the structures and institutions set-up under the Agreement could minimise some of the negative impacts arising from the removal of the existing common EU regulatory standards.

Brexit poses a major environmental threat to the island of Ireland if there is not a common set of standards for tackling issues such as invasive species, emissions standards, water quality, and hazardous waste.

The report outlines several key threats posed by Brexit to our single bio-geographic region, namely:

  1.  Regulatory divergence that could lead to governance gaps and deterioration in standards, posing countless risks to biodiversity on the island [2]
  2. Weakening of legislative protection in the North caused by the loss of the EU’s oversight and enforcement mechanisms [3] [4]
  3. Potential loss of significant stream of cross-border funding
  4. Physical blockage of cross-border co-operation posed by a hard border scenario [5]

These obstacles could be tackled, through better use of the institutions established under the Agreement as a vehicle to maintain high standards in policy and regulatory alignment on the island, the report states.

The report also outlines several other recommendations that would help to preserve cross-border environmental co-operation in a post-Brexit world, namely:

  1. Setting up a robust and independent regulator for environmental compliance to address environmental governance issues in Northern Ireland.
  2. Setting up an all-island governance mechanism to hold both governments to account on environmental protection issues.
  3. Establishment of a broader all-island mechanism to monitor and facilitate cross-border co-operation under the Agreement, including on environmental issues.
  4. Prioritising the continuation of cross-border funding stream.
  5. Provisions in the future EU-UK agreement, including a commitment to regulatory alignment and effective oversight and enforcement.

The report states that finding a positive solution is largely dependent on the relationship formed between the EU and the UK, which could include high levels of regulatory alignment across most, if not all, areas of environmental policy.

Athlone Institute of Technology lecturer and author of the report, Alison Hough BL, said:

“The natural world does not recognise borders, and flora and fauna will not conveniently confine their habitats to man-made political boundaries. This is the reason that the environment featured extensively in the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, as one of the nominated areas of cross-border co-operation.

“It is important that the reality of island of Ireland’s shared environmental context is not ignored during the Brexit debate.

“The institutions and mechanisms of co-operation created under the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement must be protected and maintained, and their full potential exploited, in order to enhance environmental protection on the island of Ireland.”

Coordinator of the Environmental Pillar, Michael Ewing, said:

“The latest Brexit deadline is rapidly approaching, and, to date, negotiations and discussions have barely touched on the potential negative impact on our natural environment.

“The future relationship between the UK and EU must put environmental protection center-stage. This report highlights the challenges Brexit poses for environmental protection but articulates how some of these issues can be averted through continued cross-border cooperation and the maintenance of high environmental standards both North and South.

“It is only by avoiding a hard environmental border that we can ensure our joint efforts to protect and enhance the environment for the benefit of all is not undermined as all environmental issues such as water quality, habitat and species loss have a strong cross border dimension.

“Therefore, it is crucial it is recognised that the island of Ireland and its surrounding waters are a single bio-geographic unit, mechanisms must exist to effectively manage cross border environmental issues post Brexit.”

Chief Executive Officer of Northern Ireland Environment Link, Craig McGuicken, said: 

“There has been much discussion across the island of Ireland about the risks posed by Brexit, and about the potential impact on the structures created by the Good Friday Agreement.

“The report shows how the GFA could help to bridge some of the gaps which Brexit could potentially open up. Whatever form of Brexit we end up with, it’s encouraging to know that there are already structures in place which could be utilised to strengthen future cross-border activities.”


[1] Since 1973, environmental cooperation on the island of Ireland has been underpinned by the common set of environmental standards established at EU-level. This cooperative framework was recognised and strengthened by the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 and the establishment of the North South Ministerial Council that has an explicit environmental remit to facilitate co-operation and coordination in EU matters. In addition, many cross-border bodies established under the agreement such as the Loughs Agency and Waterways Ireland have a remit to ensure environmental protection.

[2] There are currently over 650 pieces of EU legislation in force to protect the environment, habitats, air quality, waste, food safety and a myriad of other areas. These laws and regulations are the principal drivers for the vast majority of environmental protection in place in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, he said. The removal of this shared regulatory and legal context may result in practical and administrative barriers to cross-border co-operation.

[3] The European Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union currently play a crucial role in overseeing and enforcing compliance with these standards and securing access to justice for citizens and civil society organisations. These governance structures play a central role in supporting environmental cooperation, driving environmental improvements, and providing the level playing field necessary to support frictionless North-South trade on a sustainable basis.

[4] The report points to the potential weakening of legislative protection in the North as perhaps the single greatest environmental risk posed by Brexit, especially in light of a long history of failure to meet basic standards of environmental protection in Northern Ireland. The reasons for this include Northern Ireland’s status as a post-conflict society, the many failures in executive formation, and the lack of an independent environmental regulator

[5] A hard border or a customs border would represent a potential physical obstacle to cross-border environmental projects, potentially causing innumerable problems from movement of staff on projects and goods necessary for the carrying out of projects, to the more abstract problems cause by regulatory divergence and governance changes as a result of Brexit.