The future economic prosperity for Northern Ireland lies heavily within the finer details of Britain’s negotiations to exit the EU. Despite polarising statements before and after the referendum, Northern Ireland’s First Minister and deputy First Minister appear to agree on Northern Ireland’s priorities.
That Arlene Foster described the referendum result as “momentous”, while Martin McGuinness declared it “disastrous” is a clear indication of the positions of Northern Irelands First and deputy First Ministers in relation to Brexit.
However, despite clearly polarising opinions, the cold hard reality of the economic implications appears to have spurred on some form of cohesion. That cohesion came in the form of an open letter to the British Prime Minister Theresa May, highlighting issues of particular significance to Northern Ireland.
The letter, which came after May’s fleeting first visit to Northern Ireland in July when she met the both Foster and McGuinness, qualifies its timing by outlining that May has since announced her intent to trigger Article 50 in early 2017. What exactly was discussed at Stormont Castle remains unclear.
Describing the full involvement and representation of Northern Ireland within a Brexit as a “fundamental prerequisite”, the letter welcomes a commitment from May for an inclusive and meaningful negotiation process.
The First Minister (FM) and deputy First Minister (dFM) point to five key areas of “significance” for Northern Ireland. Firstly, they address the issue of the border and Northern Ireland’s potential unique position of sharing a land border with an EU member state. “There have been difficult issues relating to the border throughout our history and the peace process. We therefore appreciate your stated determination that the border will not become an impediment to the movement of people, goods and services,” they wrote. “It must not become a catalyst for illegal activity or compromise in any way the arrangements relating to criminal justice and tackling organised crime.”
The letter references the border’s significance for the agri food sector and animal health, a sector it says which represents “a much more important component of our regional economy than it does for the UK as a whole.” It highlights that the sector is vulnerable to the loss of EU funding and potential barriers to trade.
Another key concern centres around competitive business and access to labour. The letter requests that local companies and FDI companies do not incur additional costs. “We therefore need to retain as far as possible the ease at which we currently trade with EU members states,” it said. “Policies need to be sufficiently flexible to allow access to unskilled as well as highly skilled labour.” The letter references a reliance of private and public sectors to EU and other migrant labour. “There is also the matter of the many thousands of people who commute each way across the border to work on a daily basis,” it adds.
The request for access to unskilled and skilled labour appears at odds to the campaign to Leave, which had cutting immigration levels as one of its core principles. Another element which appears at odds with any campaign to leave revolves around EU funding. An argument used by Leave campaigners across Britain argued that Britain paid in more than it received from the EU. However, for Northern Ireland, EU funds “have been hugely important to our economy and the peace process,” the letter states. In summarised that €13 billion has been given to Northern Ireland since 1994 and from 2014 to 2020, a further €3.5 billion is expected to be drawn down. “The current uncertainty around the ability to draw down a proportion of these funds, and the absence of EU programmes in the future is of real concern to a range of sectors.”
The final priority outlined in the letter points towards energy and an “inherent” cost and supply issue for such a small market. The FM and dFM ask that “nothing in the negotiation process undermines this vital aspect of our economy”.
In early July, Foster rebuffed a proposition from Enda Kenny of the establishment of an all-Ireland forum to mitigate the negative effects of the British decision to leave the EU. However, within the letter Foster and McGuinness express that they “wish to play our part in the engagement between the two Governments on the unique aspects of negotiations that arise from the border, recognising the possibility that it cannot be guaranteed that outcomes that suit our common interests are ultimately deliverable.” They add: “We wish to have full access to that intergovernmental process as the border issues affecting trade, employment, energy and potential criminality are of such high significance for us.”
The letter points to the likely problems Brexit will offer to Northern Ireland, what it doesn’t offer is any forms of solution. By pointing to the benefits of the current EU configuration, it’s difficult to see why one half of the letters composers campaigned to Leave, nor is it explained. In the wake of the letter, Foster was accused of a U-turn on her support for Brexit, an accusation that she strenuously denied. “We are extracting ourselves from the European Union and it is right we identify where those challenges lie, but I fundamentally believe there are huge opportunities,” she said.
Northern Ireland’s five key priorities:
- The border
- Trading costs
- The energy market
- EU funding
- Agri food sector