“So far as it lies within the power of the United Kingdom government, we will be doing everything we possibly can, even in the case of ‘no deal’, to ensure that there is continued free trade across the border on the island of Ireland,” David Lidington said on a visit to Derry last week. Lidington is probably the most important politician that most readers have never heard of – he is actually the most senior UK government politician after Prime Minister Theresa May. Lidington was speaking on a visit to the Holywell Trust, where he was interviewed for a special podcast.
“That is something that we believe is important in terms of the long term commitment to peace building and reconciliation between different communities, to overcome the legacy of the Troubles,” continued Lidington. “We know that those objectives are shared by the government of the Republic of Ireland, as well. What I can’t do as a British minister is speak for ministers in the Irish government about what they will do in their jurisdiction [if there is no deal]. What they have said… is that in those circumstances they will talk urgently to the European Commission about how to manage this, as they will have continuing obligations under European law. And we will be standing ready to have very urgent and very constructive conversations about we achieve what we both want to achieve.”
But while those concerns, Lidington recognised, apply to businesses that operate across the border, he was more reassuring for cross-border commuters. “In terms of people who are travelling to work every day there is certainly not going to be any immigration checks that we are going to impose. The Common Travel Area long preceded the entry of both the United Kingdom and Ireland into the European Union. And it happens there has been easy up-front agreement in the talks about the continuation of the Common Travel Area. Certainly as far as the UK government is concerned we will not seek to make any change to that arrangement.”
However, it seems as if the many local charities in receipt of Peace programme money are right to worry about the future of those funds. The existing Peace IV programme expires in 2020. Both the European Commission – which is the main funder of the programme – and the UK government have indicated their desire to replace Peace IV with a new Peace + to continue from 2020. With a possible ‘no deal’ outcome – which the government’s trade secretary Liam Fox estimates is a 60% probability – this is far from guaranteed. It was noticeable that last week’s government briefing on guidance for the ‘no deal’ scenario made no reference to the future of the Peace programmes. Lidington avoided promising a continuation, while indicating that its fate could be contained in guidance to be published in coming weeks. But he did re-commit the government to ensuring that existing Peace funding promises up to 2020 will be honoured. In the event of a ‘no deal’ outcome, Lidington added, it was likely the secretary of state for Northern Ireland would come forward with proposals for project funding that might continue the work of the Peace programmes.
Lidington does, though, still believe it is possible that a negotiated Brexit outcome is possible. To enable that to happen he is optimistic that the different wings of the Conservative Party can come together to offer a compromise acceptable to the European Commission. Most Conservative MPs, said Lidington, are in favour of a negotiated solution. It is only when a concrete deal is negotiated, says the minister, that cross-party unity will be displayed – when the debate is no longer theoretical.
The future of the Peace programme is very much at the front of the minds of several local charities involved in reconciliation and innovation projects. In a separate just released Holywell Trust Brexit podcast, John Peto of the Nerve Centre, Elaine Forde of the Playhouse Theatre and Maureen Hetherington of The Junction told us what European Union money has enabled them to deliver – and what might be lost if the funding is not renewed.
Another serious – actual rather than feared – loss is business investment. A survey conducted by the AIB bank found that half of Northern Ireland firms with investment plans had either put these on hold or cancelled them because of Brexit and the related uncertainty. In the case of the City of Derry Airport, the maintenance and repair operation that was planned has now been abandoned, because the potential operators need the base to be located within the EU. These are difficult times.
The special Holywell Trust Brexit podcast with David Lidington, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and minister for the Cabinet Office, is available at https://soundcloud.com/holywelltrust/holywell-podcast-brexit-focus-special-with-david-lidington
The monthly Holywell Trust Brexit podcast, which features analysis, plus interviews with European Union funded local groups, is available at https://soundcloud.com/holywelltrust/holywell-podcast-brexit-focus-ep9