Brexit means what we make of it

11 Aug 2017 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 11 Aug 2017

A lack of specifics on plans for Brexit negotiations, and what is planned for afterwards, is worrying - but it provides opportunities for shaping the future. NICVA recently published its position paper on Brexit. Scope takes a look.

Love it or hate it, something called Brexit is going to happen.

Time is moving on and the progress towards Brexit continues. The progress towards what that actually means, however, is much less apparent.

This has good and bad aspects, whether you voted leave or remain.

The downsides are a potentially directionless, plan-free future. A socioeconomic cliff edge with Boris Johnson and David Davis as Thelma and Louise, and the rest of us hitched to the back of their convertible.

The upsides? The arguments about what we want from Brexit are still to be made, let alone won. Time is short but our direction can be affected.

Late last month NICVA published its position paper on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. Exercises like this are vital in giving a voice to various sections of society - in this case, the voluntary and community sector.

NICVA found that 80% of the NI third sector were opposed to Brexit. However, another fear also featured heavily amongst organisations - that Northern Ireland will not be given a high priority in negotiations; 83% of responses to the Brexit Viewfinder survey expressed concern about this, with the same percentage worried that political disagreements within the Executive will weaken our position in withdrawal talks.

Beyond that, five key areas of concern were identified within the sector.

Key issues

1. Promoting peace and stability in NI: direct support from the EU, including through PEACE funding, has been important over the last 15 years, while the fact that both the UK and Republic of Ireland are EU members has made cooperation over NI simpler, providing an all-island legal framework.

“The retention of this framework is essential to avoiding the necessity for a physical and economic border. The reestablishment of a ‘hard’ customs, trade and immigration border on the island of Ireland requiring visible enforcement along its length, poses a direct threat to the progress made in recent decades.”

2. Protecting the NI economy and economic well-being: 60% of NI exports go to the EU, with 34% of those going to the RoI; EU agricultural subsidies total £325m per year; structural funds total around £175m a year across various sectors.

Evidently there are huge pillars of our local economy and infrastructure that rely on the EU. Falling exports or reductions in funding will have to be made up elsewhere.

The shape of the local economy is also different from the UK as a whole; for instance, we rely much more heavily on agrifood. Our unique circumstances need to be recognised by Westminster, initially, and then in the planning and agreements for our post-Brexit direction.

3. Protecting social and economic rights: many organisations working to tackle inequalities and discrimination fear a loss of the protections and rights provided by EU laws.

“It is vital that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU does not result in an erosion of these rights.  The sector is also very concerned about the risks to such rights inherent in the enacting of Great Repeal/EU Withdrawal Bill and subsequent amendments to UK legislation.”

4. Protecting our health: there are concerns Brexit could threaten co-operation in medical research and also future all-island health delivery and investment – such as recent cross-border efforts on paediatric cardiac health.

NICVA is urging “those negotiating the terms of Brexit to secure a deal that retains our access to EU funding for medical and other research, as is the case in other non-EU countries like Norway, and does not undermine efforts to meet already major challenges in providing health services in Northern Ireland and across the island of Ireland”.

5. Protecting our environment: much of the legislation that defends our environment stems from the EU. Suitable laws that offer robust protection for NI’s natural environment need to be put in place.

NICVA asks

In view of the above concerns, NICVA is calling on those negotiating the terms of any Brexit deal to:

  • Ensure continued peace and stability by avoiding a hard border and any undermining of the terms of and rights afforded under the Good Friday Agreement
  • Preserve the rights afforded under the Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland
  • Ensure continued free trade and movement of goods and people on the island of Ireland to avoid the economic damage and threat to stability which any hardening of the border beyond current arrangements border would inevitably bring
  • Protect the rights and social and environmental protections currently afforded under EU legislation and ensure full scrutiny by NI government of the transposition into NI law of EU legislation under the Great Repeal/EU Withdrawal Bill and of any subsequent proposed changes, as well as ensuring adequate resourcing for these changes in NI (e.g. legal capacity and expertise for the transposition process, effective enforcement mechanisms)
  • Ensure a comprehensive process with the full involvement of NI government and non-government sectors to review the financial and policy implications of the withdrawal, post 2020, of current levels and types EU Structural Funds support, and a fully inclusive process to assess need and re-design appropriate local, regional and devolved domestic social, economic and environmental funding programmes
  • Ensure continued access post-Brexit to EU transnational programmes such as Horizon 2020 and Interreg as vital vehicles for maximising the public benefit of transnational/Europe-wide activities such as medical research.

Dialogue, decisions, direction

However, the biggest area of concern might well be where Northern Ireland sits on Westminster’s agenda when it comes to the incipient negotiations.

NI has, in many ways, spent much of the past 15 years out of sight and out of mind of London – but that is not the problem.

The issue is that we are at the sharp end of some of the stickiest aspects of the talks, including what will become of the border with the Republic of Ireland (and thus the EU) – in both an economic and a social sense – and also because of Dublin’s input into Belfast.

This is all exacerbated by the local political situation.

Per the position paper: “This response is based upon this sustained engagement which has included a series of events with academics, elected representatives and governmental officials; two surveys of NICVA members; and roundtable discussions between sector representatives and the ‘Brexit lead’ officials in the Department of Justice, The Executive Office, DAERA, and the Department of Education.”

The officials tasked with leading the Brexit effort in all of these departments have plenty on their plate already. In the absence of any ministers they are also the closest thing to publicly accountable people, within their areas of interest.

Without some functioning body politic Northern Ireland has no true and official representatives of its own interests. This is something with no upsides and only downsides.

Local stakeholders – which means everyone – have to fill the gap. Brexit means Brexit and it could mean bad things for Northern Ireland but there is still an opportunity to make the case for something better.

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