Debate of the week – visionary Brexit
The UUP campaigned for Remain but have chosen to take a positive approach to Brexit.
Other parties, such as the SDLP and Sinn Fein, have been keen to support legal challenges or generally remain opposed to the EU referendum result but, as Stormont resumed after summer recess, the Ulster Unionists unveiled their policy paper, A Vision for Northern Ireland outside the EU.
Armed with their 12-page document, the party – via new MLA Steve Aiken – tabled the following Private Members’ Motion this Monday:
That this Assembly, in the light of the referendum decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, endorses and adopts the approach contained in 'A Vision for Northern Ireland outside the EU', published by the Ulster Unionist Party.
The debate contained plenty of yah-boo-sucks about winning and losing (referendums, elections, whatever) and other Northern Irish political tropes – remarkably, Sinn Fein said they wanted a United Ireland – but we will ignore those and instead review some of the less sweeping details about the future of NI.
The paper itself states that the Executive must provide “urgent, comprehensive, coherent action by delivering a specific vision of post-Brexit NI, plan and create a “Brexit War Room” to identify the best local policy options and priorities and deliver them during the negotiations in the next few years, and define the key demands NI has of both Westminster and the EU itself.
It also puts forward the 10 asks the UUP has identified as most important:
1. Infrastructure investment to be trebled
2. A Northern Ireland wide Enterprise Zone
3. A step change in education and skills
4. Financial guarantees for those losing EU funding
5. Enhanced investment in Research & Development and Innovation
6. Safeguards for the Common Travel Area
7. No “hard border” at Great Britain’s ports and airports
8. Unfettered access to the EU’s Single Market
9. Clarity regarding non-EU commitments that will still apply post Brexit
10. A Peace Centre at the Crumlin Road Courthouse site.
Mr Aiken said planning is essential, that article 50 could be triggered as early as January, and that other devolved governments have already started making plans – citing Scotland’s already earmarked £100m stimulus package, while in NI there is a “vacuum”.
He identified a number of problems facing the NI economy in the near future but said he did not want to be negative, and wants “to build a more positive vision”, saying there is a strong case to make Northern Ireland an enterprise zone as it will sit on the border “between two great economic groupings”.
Christopher Stalford, of the DUP, said these plans “are largely uncosted, untested ideas that they know they will not be able to pay for” and criticised calls to use quantitative easing to pay for some of the measures, including infrastructure spending.
Former Education Minister and Sinn Fein MLA John O’Dowd said local farmers will be at significant risk outside the EU, as “agrifood and the agricultural industries need European labour”, meaning that NI will have to sign up to matters like freedom of movement, and to European trading arrangements, before questioning what Brexit then amounts to.
The SDLP’s Claire Hanna said that, while her party has not accepted Brexit, they share some of the concerns raised by the UUP – adding that “it is not in the SDLP's nature to be obstructionist”. Addressing some of the points in the paper, she said:
“I will look at some of the issues raised. Trebling our infrastructure, regardless of our future, is vital. People look at the Republic and the advances it secured through corporation tax and fail to learn the lesson. Investors are not hanging around just waiting for the right tax deal; they want skills and infrastructure.
“The enterprise zone links into some of the issues mentioned. We believe that the European Union, in the main, has done well to balance the interests of businesses and employees. We would like that framework of employment law and protections to remain, and some of that can be discussed.”
She reiterated the need to ensure quality education and skills as “we deserve those 21st century high-quality jobs here” although raised concerns about NI no longer being a “gateway to Europe”. The proposed financial guarantees were also identified as a good thing.
Stephen Farry, the previous employment and learning minister, said the document seeks to address how NI can affect Brexit negotiations to protect its own interests – noting that the DUP, via the Executive Office’s August letter to Theresa May, itself agrees with many concerns about referendum consequences.
He said further that a hard Brexit is simply not possible in Northern Ireland and raised the possibility that we could be a special case, with some particular arrangement around the border and related issues.
SF’s Declan McAleer rose to make some particular observations about EU funding and infrastructure projects – identifying the planned transport spending as something that we could miss out on, firstly, and which could then increase our isolation from the EU trading bloc. He also raised concerns about the rural economy, which were echoed by the UUP’s Philip Smith.
Green Party NI leader Steven Agnew said his party, like some others, continues to advocate remaining part of the EU, but that if Brexit does come to pass it will require cross-party consensus to achieve the best for NI, while the motion itself is effectively asking for an endorsement of the Ulster Unionist position.
He said further that consensus on an issue like underwriting EU funds would be easy, but questioned what the local vision is for environmental protection, and how this sits with deregulation of planning that the UUP propose goes hand-in-hand with NI as an enterprise zone.
Gerry Carroll said People Before Profit supports much of what is in the document, including the underwriting of EU funding, no hard border, better infrastructure and freedom of movement, but said his party supports the freedom of all people – citing the European refugee crisis as a particular disaster. He queried whether the document really offered a different economic vision that that espoused by the Executive, also criticising “race to the bottom” corporation tax proposals.
TUV leader Jim Allister said the paper’s content “is quite haphazard and random” but did praise the fact they have done more than any other party, including his own, and also the Executive themselves, in providing a plan that can be critiqued.
He said, however, that the does not endorse all of the content, that Northern Ireland should not be a special case on any given issue – and also that visas should not be a devolved matter, as proposed in the paper, as this would be “totally incompatible with a united kingdom”.
The motion failed, with only UUP members voting in favour – excepting Mr Allister, who also voted against.
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