Two decades ago a new dispensation in the Belfast Agreement was negotiated to great international acclaim. The fruits of this labour have been plentiful with peace and increasing prosperity being the tangible hallmarks. Of course, there have been disappointments and frustrations along the way but the conditions today for people across the island of Ireland are immeasurably better. Sadly, but perhaps understandably, insufficient attention was paid in the run up to the referendum on the 23 June to the circumstances that would prevail in Northern Ireland (or indeed the Republic) but that is now history.
It is encouraging however, that already in this first critical week both the UK Government and the European Parliament have been at pains to highlight the unique status of Northern Ireland in the negotiations. CBI members are now looking for a plan which sets out the practical actions the UK Government can take to ensure no new barriers are created which would undermine the continuing integration between the economies of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (and in turn the Republic with Britain) in the various possible outcomes of the negotiation. These include:
• a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement;
• no customs agreement but some form of trade agreement; or
• no trade agreement and the UK-EU relationship falls under WTO rules.
Knowing the Government is preparing for these possible scenarios will offer reassurance to businesses on both sides of the Irish Sea. The communication of a clear plan that provides the answers to how there will not be a ‘hard’ border would help to ameliorate the current significant concerns of companies in Northern Ireland.
Locally, there are some fundamentally transformative issues that our politicians need to address in partnership with business. They include:
The need to address the Single Electricity Market (SEM). The SEM has provided proven benefits for citizens and businesses island-wide. The SEM allows all electricity generated on the island to be pooled, bought and sold in one jointly administered mandatory marketplace. This collaboration enables greater economies of scale, is more attractive to investors, and improves competition. Northern Ireland’s energy sector is just too small to run in isolation. The North-South Interconnector needs to be delivered.
Many businesses located near the border employ a high percentage of Irish domiciled citizens who travel across the border each day to work. According to the 2011 censuses, 14,800 people commute regularly between the two jurisdictions. However, recent data suggests the data vastly understates existing levels of regular cross border movement. Recently the Department for Infrastructure released traffic data recording that 326,577 journeys per week are made across the three major border crossings in Derry City and Strabane District Council area alone. We urgently seek the cooperation of government to research and publish data accurately capturing the current level of cross border movement.
The flow of people is also important for tourism on the island. In 2016 Tourism Ireland, a joint funded cross border collaborative body, estimated that over 2.1 million tourists visited Northern Ireland contributing over £527 million to the local economy. Over 75 per cent of tourists come via the Republic of Ireland. There is a real concern within the industry that a ‘hard’ border will dampen tourism.
There is no time to lose. Our local elected political representatives need to do just that – the need for a fully functioning Executive to engage nationally and internationally across the many issues is paramount. We hope that everyone around the table in the coming days (hopefully days!) will have the courage to compromise and reach an agreement. Anything else will undoubtedly result in a heavy price for our citizens with negative repercussions for many years ahead.