Brexit is a reality: let’s get on with dealing with its implications. Leave campaigners – notably our secretary of state Theresa Villiers – promised that Brexit would not lead to the creation of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. We must take her and her colleagues at their word. But it is painfully clear that the Leave campaign had no clear and coherent plan to implement following victory. It is therefore essential that proposals are put forward that amount to a plan for what happens for Northern Ireland, post-Brexit.
Northern Ireland, along with Gibralter, is the UK region most affected by the decision to leave the EU. Cross-border travel is an almost daily reality for lots of us – as it is for many of Northern Ireland’s most successful and entrepreneurial businesses. An estimated 18,000 people cross the border every day as commuters, with another 5,000 doing the same to study. Disrupting this flow through the creation of a new hard border would create serious difficulties for our populations and our businesses. This would not only damage our productivity by wasting time and increasing costs, it would also create new community and political tensions.
Yet our border with the Republic of Ireland will in future be the UK’s land border with the European Union. Moreover, the UK’s departure from the EU is likely to mean that the Republic automatically becomes a member of the Schengen free travel zone, easing the flow of EU nationals from continental Europe into Ireland.
These factors mean, I suggest, that relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic will have to be arranged in ways that meet the specific needs of our island. It is imperative that our political leadership – the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, with their representatives – have seats at the table during the negotiations between the UK and the EU. Our concerns and needs are different from those in Great Britain.
This has already been recognised by outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron and by the European Union – which has been very supportive of the Irish peace process. We can expect to receive empathy and support from the EU for tailored arrangements that deal with the specific challenges in Ireland. Former peace envoy Richard Haass this week reportedly raised the prospect of Brexit leading to constitutional changes in Ireland, one option being to move the border – presumably closer to Belfast. So radical options for change are now in the air.
Change does not require an alteration to Northern Ireland’s sovereignty. It is already agreed that Northern Ireland remains within the UK for as long as the population wants it to be. But the whole future of the UK – and that of the EU – is in the melting pot. That means we can be imaginative when we plot a way forward.
First and foremost, there must be no hard border in Ireland. That means that the free movement of people in Ireland has to be maintained. Assuming that Ireland becomes part of Schengen, UK’s migration controls will inevitably shift to the sea and air ports in Britain, rather than here. Inward migration is not actually a serious challenge for us. Anyway, even with a hard border it would be practically impossible to stop individuals crossing it through some back lane or across a farmer’s field. A hard border would be unenforceable when it comes to the movement of people.
If there is to be no hard border for people, perhaps there should be no hard border for goods or services either. The best way to avoid a trade in smuggling is to have common prices and taxes on both sides of the border. Making arrangements for custom free and tariff free cross-border trade should be possible, if there is goodwill from all institutions.
Logically this means that there needs to be greater integration of the economy, north and south. One way to assist this might be for the two administrations in Ireland to encourage traders to accept both currencies: that all businesses in Ireland be asked to accept the pound and all firms in Northern Ireland to accept the euro.
We would also need other measures. Moves towards the creation of a single market in energy should be accelerated. Transport planning should be cross-border, as should urban planning in border areas. It would be helpful if there was greater co-ordination more generally in economic, skills and tourism strategies. In each of these spheres we have much to learn from the Republic and we should not be scared to admit it. The Republic’s economic achievements were built on much more than a low tax rate.
These measures, taken together, would go a long way in protecting Northern Ireland’s economic interests. But the threat is not only from disruption to trade, it is also about investment and funding. Much foreign direct investment will find us less attractive if their primary interest is accessing the EU’s single market. But a weaker pound means we are now a lower cost location for many would-be investors.
Our loss of funding is something that needs to be addressed directly. Northern Ireland has benefited enormously from EU financial support. We must have all party co-operation in seeking a commitment from the UK government to replace EU funding with new support of equal value. It must be made clear to Westminster that substantial investment is required into Northern Ireland – particularly into infrastructure and skills – if we are ever to be financially self-sufficient.
It is tempting to continue the Leave v. Remain contest into the future, playing a new version of Northern Ireland’s Blame Game. Let us resist this. And calls to re-run the referendum offer their own serious risks. The Leave campaign won much support from parts of the electorate that feel disconnected from the political elite, left behind by globalisation and whose anger might well spill over if their vote is rejected. Trying to reconnect our political system is a priority.
So we now need to provide a platform that all political outlooks and parties can support. Both Remain and Leave campaigners in Northern Ireland can surely recognise that there are substantial threats to our economic well-being from Brexit, even if some believe that the opportunities outweigh the downsides. But Leave enthusiasts here need to also recognise that their fellow campaigners in England argued for Brexit in order to create opportunities to reduce international trade barriers.
Ensuring that we have no barriers, no border and no tariffs within Ireland should be a cause to unite everyone in Northern Ireland.