Briefing in Brussels

David Sterling, Head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service recently warned diplomats in Brussels of the dangers of a no-deal Brexit. agendaNi summarises Sterling’s speech, which articulated “deep concerns” about Northern Ireland’s future.

The man tasked with running Northern Ireland’s public services in the absence of a Stormont Assembly has spoken of his concerns surrounding the potential ramifications of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. In a speech made to foreign diplomats at the European Policy Centre, David Sterling warned of the dangers of “crashing out” of the EU, citing the country’s reliance upon cross-border trade and supply chains. Whilst Sterling asserted his will not to “stray into political territory”, he added that a “chaotic exit from the EU” would have severe consequences for the Northern Irish economy.

Sterling highlighted the potential challenges faced by Northern Ireland’s agri-food industry, who would allegedly find it “possible” to maintain trade in the face of tariffs. “The competitiveness of our businesses, many of them micro-businesses with low margins, would be damaged by any scenario that requires them to complete declaration costing £20 to £55 a time for customs, whether that is between Great Britain and Northern Ireland or between Northern Ireland and Ireland,” he said. “Northern Ireland’s place in the all-island economy is a fundamental part of our economic makeup. Simple geography has led to the development of cross-border relationships that are visible in the Single Electricity Market and our agri-food industry.

“Our businesses have told us very clearly that any significant new costs and pressures on business from either direction would be unwelcome and potentially damaging to our economy. There is a significant flow of goods and services both east-west and north-south that must not be put at risk, if we are to protect the economy,” warned Sterling. “How would this work if they had to make customs and VAT declarations each time?”

Sterling continued his warning, suggesting that multiple firms could pull out of Northern Ireland in a ‘no-deal’ scenario, citing the prominence of “larger and highly-mobile” organisations in the country, who are more likely to relocate. However, it’s not just large corporations feeling the pinch of Brexit, according to Sterling, who affirmed that SMEs were “uniquely vulnerable” in the event of a ‘no-deal’. “They are already trading within fine margins,” claimed the Civil Service Head.

Sterling also admitted that the only “ministerial direction” he had to guide the Civil Service’s approach to Brexit was a letter penned in 2016 by then First and deputy First Ministers, Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness. “Despite its brevity, it has been enormously helpful to us as civil servants because, in the absence of ministers, it has given us a basis on which to engage with Whitehall departments on the way forward,” he said.

“Only ministers can decide what are the best strategies and policies to make a difference, only ministers can set priorities for action, and only ministers can choose how best to allocate the scarce resources, especially financial resources, available to us.

“So, we need our Executive back quickly to give us the direction we need to make Northern Ireland a better place to live and work for all our citizens.”

Sterling spoke of his optimism surrounding the likelihood for an agreement.

“I hope this is right, for there is too much at stake for all of us,” he concluded.

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