Businessman and philanthropist Chuck Feeney believed to have financially supported an attempt to veto Brexit in Northern Ireland.

Irish-American businessman and philanthropist, Chuck Feeney, is funding a cross-party High Court case in Northern Ireland hoping to override the Brexit vote, claims the Belfast Newsletter. It is not known whether Feeney personally supports the case or if the funding decision was made by the funding vehicles which decide how his grants are spent.  

During two legal challenges presented on Tuesday, October 4, by a cross-party group of politicians from Northern Ireland and other anti-Brexit campaigners, the high court heard how Northern Ireland's departure from the EU would massively undermine the work of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), the peace process, and would be extremely damaging to Northern Ireland.

One of these challenges is led by Raymond McCord, a campaigner for victims of paramilitary violence and the father of a man killed by loyalist paramilitaries in 1997. McCord argues that Brexit would undermine the GFA, and human rights. His case is being financially supported by legal aid (public money). His receipt of such money has been criticized by members of the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest Unionist party in Northern Ireland.

Read more: Northern Ireland could veto UK’s Brexit from EU

The second, however, is spearheaded by politicians from the largest of Northern Ireland's nationalist parties – Sinn Féin and the Social and Democratic Labour (SDLP) – as well as a former head of Northern Ireland’s equality commission, and the former NI Minister for Justice, David Ford.

Although Feeney's name is neither published nor referred to in court, it is now believed that these challenges are being funded by Feeney, whose roots are in Ireland's northern counties.

“My understanding is that all of the costs are being met by philanthropic bodies and I have not been asked to make any personal contribution,” former Alliance Party leader David Ford told the Newsletter. Green Party leader Steven Agnew stated, “A significant amount of the work is pro bono as well as funding from PILS, Atlantic Philanthropies, and the Human Rights Consortium.”

PILS, Atlantic Philanthropies, and Human Rights Consortium are all either completely funded by Fenney or are among the philanthropic organizations that work to distribute his money to causes throughout the world.

Son of Irish-American parents and born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Charles “Chuck” Feeney always believed that those with money should use their wealth for the greater good, once stating, “I had one idea that never changed in my mind – that you should use your wealth to help people.”

The 85-year-old businessman initially made his money from the duty-free business but since 1982, has donated his money to causes he feels are worthy. His ancestral homeland has benefitted greatly from his philanthropic work – Ireland has received more than $2 billion.

Feeney's ancestors came from Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh in Northern Ireland, which sparked his interest in seeing an end to the Troubles. He is credited with having played an important role laying the groundwork for peace in the years before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. He has also invested $21 million in advocating for and securing human rights in Northern Ireland through organizations such as PILS, Atlantic Philanthropies, and the Human Rights Consortium.

Read more: Irish American Chuck Feeney gives $177 million to find a cure for dementia

While Atlantic Philanthropies is a limited-life foundation set to cease grantmaking in 2016, PILS, which is registered as a company, is reported to have had over $700,000 (£600,000) in its accounts earlier this year. Over the past nine years Feeney has invested more than $2.5 million (£2.2 million) in the company “to support the advancement and protection of human rights through promoting the use of strategic litigation in Northern Ireland.”

The Human Rights Consortium has received a similar figure from the philanthropist in the last number of years to “continue and complete its campaigning work and to deliver the clearest possible message of public support for a Bill of Rights.”

The Northern Ireland legal challenges to Brexit center on the argument that if British Prime Minister Theresa May triggers Article 50 of the EU Lisbon Treaty (the move that will officially begin the divorce with the EU) without first holding a vote in Westminster and in Northern Ireland’s regional assembly, Stormont, Brexit will be acting against the will of the Northern Ireland population. As a result, the departure of Northern Ireland from the EU will be in breach of the Good Friday Agreement, the peace accord ratified on Northern Ireland in 1998.

Despite the Leave campaign winning a UK majority in June’s referendum with 52%, Northern Ireland voted by 56% to remain in the EU, a stance also held by the majority in Scotland, and in England’s capital city London, where a similar legal challenge will be mounted later this month.

Arguing on behalf of the government, Tony McGleenan QC claimed “that ship had sailed” in terms of a decision for the UK to remain in the EU, stating that the triggering of Article 50 was nothing but an “administrative step,” with a decision already made by the UK public.

David Scoffield QC, the representative for the cross-party group opposed to Brexit, branded the UK government's plans an “abuse of power.”

"A change so profound as withdrawing from the EU requires consent from the people of Northern Ireland," the court was told earlier in the case.

“Sovereignty over constitutional affairs has been ceded [by the UK]. It is not the relationship, as it might once have been, between a dominant partner and a submissive partner.

“The people of Northern Ireland have control over constitutional change, it cannot be imposed upon the people of Northern Ireland. If that means that Northern Ireland could exercise a veto over withdrawal then I am [asserting] that is what Britain signed up to when it signed the Good Friday Agreement.”

As the three-day challenge came to a close in the Belfast High Court on Thursday, October 6, Justice Maguire pledged to give immediate consideration to the landmark legal bids, while placing a cap on costs. He is asked to take only arguments relevant to Northern Ireland into consideration

On Thursday, October 13, a similar challenge will be mounted in London by investment banker Gina Miller and London-based Spanish hairdresser Deir Dos Santos acting with the People's Challenge group.

Miller states that unless the decision is made by a vote in the British Parliament, it will lead to a loss of her rights under EU law.

Should the Brexit referendum vote be honored or are anti-Brexit campaigners right to challenge the decision? Will Northern Ireland’s departure from the EU damage the Good Friday Agreement? Tell us what you think in the comments section, below.

H/T: Belfast Newsletter

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