Trade Union Desk

The first thing to say about leaving the EU is that this is a very complicated process which will take years and has not even started yet, writes John O’Farrell.

The second thing to point out is that those of us who opposed leaving the EU are perfectly entitled to retain that view. It is not showing contempt for the will of the majority to hold onto an opinion. Nor is it ‘elitist’ to highlight that the ‘leave’ campaign was based on a series of re-asserted untruths and unsubtle racism. There was nothing ‘dog-whistle’ about UKIP’s poster, nor was there anything isolated in its deliberate conflation of Syrian refugees, the ISIS fanatics they are fleeing, the ‘home-grown’ terrorism of Paris and Brussels and distortions about free movement of EU citizens.

The ‘elitist’ gibe is a bit rich when it comes from some people who opposed the Good Friday Agreement, which was endorsed in two referendums (and every subsequent election), and sought to undermine it on the streets as well as in Stormont. Indeed, there are some MLAs and Stormont ministers who insist to this day that they have never accepted the referendums of 1998. Good for them; those are the sort of pluralist opinions one is supposed to hear in a democracy. But what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

The trade unions are approaching the new reality with the aim of maintaining as many of the old facts as possible. There were solid reasons for working people voting to ‘Remain’; the immediate concerns for the trade unions centre on:

  • Protection of all employment rights and future rights; ensuring that the Northern Ireland Assembly uses its devolved power to achieve this.

  • Trade – negotiating and regulating customs and tariffs. The first of the border issues, followed by:

  • Work – Republic of Ireland citizens working in Northern Ireland. What will happen to EU citizens working in Northern Ireland? What will happen to Northern Ireland citizens working in the Republic of Ireland or other EU countries?

  • Travel – Freedom of movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic for Irish and British citizens. Freedom of movement for EU citizens. Will we have soft border control or hard border control? Soft would mean no passport control on the border, but would be activated at ports and airports through passport control. However, the First Minister says that her opposition to checkpoints between Northern Ireland and the ‘mainland’ is shared by Theresa May. Now what?

  • European Court of Human Rights, which is imperative to retain as it is crucial to the Good Friday Agreement, despite being outwith the competence of the EU. What, though, of the EU Court of Justice, and its rulings on workers’ rights and taxation?

  • Fiscal Target – Fiscal targets set by the previous Westminster Government have now been abandoned by the new UK Chancellor in favour of a renewed focus on investment. It is crucial that the Northern Ireland Assembly lobbies UK Government to ensure that the costs to Northern Ireland of abandoning the EU are fully reflected in any new fiscal settlement.

  • EU Funding – civil society, business and the unions, farmers and the community sector, must lobby vigorously to ensure that the recipients continue to receive the same rates of funding from the UK Government, lest that oft-asserted promise go the way of the £350 million being shovelled into the NHS every week.

At its July meeting, the ICTU Executive Council, the elected ruling body of 55 trade unions on the island of Ireland, met and discussed the implications of the referendum, stating: “The most striking aspect of the response of Europe’s political leaders to the British referendum result is how they failed to get the message.

“The simple fact of the matter is that the result of the referendum swung on working class voters suffering years of austerity and deregulated labour markets. These conditions originated in decisions taken at Westminster but Europe got the blame. The strategy of precarious work favoured by business and those on the centre right simply doesn’t work; sooner or later the politics catches up with the economics.

“The European Trade Union Confederation proposes a policy of investment in sustainable growth which would raise skills and productivity. Congress supports this. We also support the proposal by President Juncker to build a Pillar of European Social rights.”

A new dispensation can emerge from this mess. The real work begins now.



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