Senator Black welcomes all island forum on Brexit

October 5, 2016

I welcome the announcement by the Taoiseach of the establishment of an all-Ireland civic dialogue on Brexit. My father came from Rathlin island, a small island off the coast of north Antrim, and if he were alive today he would have a lot of concerns. One of these would be over the Border becoming harder than it is at present. Some of the harder-line Brexiteers in Mrs. May's Conservative Party are already, reportedly, agitating to pull out of the EU's customs union, a move which could mean the imposition of customs checks on goods travelling between the North and the South. Does Brexit mean the creation of a physical international border between the North of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? The imposition of passport checks and customs posts will impact on trade and tourism. Will this be repartition?

The Brexit issue is highly politically sensitive for the political parties which are tied in to the efforts of building an agreed post-conflict society. Indeed, Brexit will help reinforce the division of the island. The 1998 Belfast Agreement was premised on both UK and Irish membership of the European Union. How far will Brexit impact on the North-South dimensions of relations between Stormont and Dublin? Although the UK provides a highly important internal market for Northern goods, European markets also matter. A Brexit might mean the UK no longer has access to the Single Market and, in the context of Northern Ireland, this is hugely important, because 55% of manufacturing goes to the EU, with most of that going to the Irish Republic.

Does a Brexit impact on competitive advantage in the UK? The North of Ireland is a border economy and anything that interrupts and hinders the free flow of goods and labour impacts negatively on the Northern economy. It has been estimated in a recent report for the Northern Assembly's enterprise committee that the Northern economy would lose some €1 billion per annum following a Brexit and would face a 3% decline in GDP. Is this sustainable? The operation of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy accounts for some 82% of farm income across the North. The figure of aid for the period 2014-2020 is estimated at some €3 billion. Is it to be expected that the UK Treasury will replace these funds with UK moneys following Brexit? If it does not do this, what will happen in the farming and related agrifood sectors? The North of Ireland has benefited considerably from Structural Funds and peace moneys. Indeed, some €2.4 billion was received from the EU in 2007 and 2013, with a broadly similar amount available between 2014 and 2020. This would stop following a Brexit so what would be the implications for Northern Ireland as it develops as a post-conflict society?

Getting any enabling legislation for Brexit through the Northern Assembly would appear to be extremely difficult, even if it could achieve a bare majority, which is not clear. The Nationalist parties would invoke the petition of concern mechanism to turn it into a cross-community vote, which they could then block. Westminster might decide to pass over the devolved legislators but that, in itself, is liable to change the terms of the political debate, all the more so because the convention in the North of Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement has been that any significant change to institutions can only come about with cross-community support. The impact of the Border will become an issue again so what assurances can we get that there will be no return to a hard Border? The Nationalist people of the North felt abandoned by the partition of the island in 1921 and I would like to be sure they do not feel the same sense of abandonment now when they are forced to leave the EU despite voting by a majority to remain, and that the Irish Government will do all in its power to ensure that the will of the majority in the North will be upheld. This is important as one of the main points of the Good Friday Agreement insists that the majority in the North must vote for any change in the status of the North. However, their vote to remain in the EU is now going to be ignored.

 

 

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© 2016-2018 Senator Frances Black