Hey, remember Brexit?

15 Jul 2020 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 15 Jul 2020

2020 is our annus horribilis. Until, perhaps, 2021.


Brexit is a thing that has both happened and not happened.

The UK’s decision to leave the EU has been confirmed and the parting of ways technically occurred at the end of January.

However, until midnight on December 31st we are in the transition period during which the UK is treated as a member state. So, for now, not much has changed.

The transition period exists to give the UK time to organise its future arrangements.

There are two major considerations about how this time is being used: one about ongoing uncertainty, the other about growing concern.

The uncertainty surrounds a lack of detail – on the UK’s future relationship with the EU, with its other international ties, and its own domestic dynamics (in other words, Northern Ireland).

The concern is that things are going to be bad. In part, this stems from the uncertainty. Clarity is required for preparation, and nowhere in the UK has clarity. For Northern Ireland, the shroud is thicker and darker than everywhere else.

Then there are the noises being made by some of the chief architects of Brexit. Evasiveness about plans and specifics, and language that sounds less like “sunlit uplands” and more like Project Fear – none of this breeds confidence.

Throw in a pandemic on top of that and the outlook is miserable.


NICVA was one of 55 organisations that last month wrote to the Prime Minister calling for a one-off extension to the transition period.

The Brexit Civil Society Alliance said such a move was necessary to provide time to deal with Covid-19 and to fully understand, prepare and adapt for Brexit.

The deadline for such an extension was June 30 and the PM declined to pursue any such option.

This means that many of the fears raised by the alliance of third sector organisations have become more concrete.

Per NICVA: “Many key issues arising from Brexit that need detailed consideration have still to be agreed and prepared for, such as the replacement of EU funding; the rights and standards that replace those currently underpinned by EU legislation; and the implementation of the NI protocol including the final arrangements for cross-border trade so vital for our economy…

“Time is needed for civil society organisations in NI and across the UK to be able to prepare for the significant changes coming such as the new immigration system, new agencies like the Office for Environmental Protection, new laws that will come into effect and changes to funding with the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.

“If no agreement is signed between the UK and the EU we will be in no-deal territory. NICVA and the Brexit Civil Society Alliance have previously outlined the impacts that a no-deal Brexit could have on civil society including a regression in rights, and weaker standards including potential gaps in governance.

“If a deal is agreed, organisations will need time to understand and prepare for the implications of leaving the transition period at the end of 2020, in both a deal or no-deal scenario. The UK Government has outlined its approach to the negotiations, but until there is a final agreement to work from it is difficult for organisations to prepare in advance for a new regulatory regime, especially during this pandemic.”

NICVA and the Brexit Civil Society Alliance also posed four questions to different members of the cabinet, which remain as relevant now as they were a month ago:

  • To the Minister for the Cabinet Office - What plans his department has for building awareness for how charities and voluntary organisations can prepare for the end of the transition period?
  • To the Chancellor of the Exchequer - What funds he will make available to help charities and voluntary organisations prepare for the end of the transition period this year and when he will make them available?
  • To the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government - When his department will launch the consultation on the UK Shared Prosperity Fund?
  • To the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government - When does his department expect the UK Shared Prosperity Fund to be established and fully operational?

The state of Brexit right now

To get a grip on where Brexit is right now, to understand what has been resolved and where decisions are still to be made, it is a good idea to ask an expert.

Dr Katy Hayward is a Reader in Sociology at Queen's University Belfast, a Senior Fellow with UK in a Changing Europe, and has particular expertise on cross-border cooperation and management, focusing on the case study of Ireland/Northern Ireland and the impact of EU membership.

She chaired a NICVA digital event a couple of weeks ago called Brexit 2020: Where Are We Now? and has written a good summary of her address here. It is extremely accessible, and lays out the few answers and many questions relating to Brexit as things stand.

Perhaps the most important things to note are the clarity Dr Hayward provides on the Northern Ireland Protocol (compared with the shifting stances taken by cabinet members and others in government on Northern Ireland’s future relationship with Great Britain, its relationship with RoI, and the de facto border in the Irish Sea), and on broader areas of concern (some of which stem from challenges facing the protocol).

Regarding the protocol, she writes: “NI is still in the UK’s customs territory, but now there will be a need to: (a) know what is coming into NI from Great Britain (and all non-EU countries), and (b) be able to stop it going beyond the point of entry (e.g. ferry port) if it doesn’t meet the rules.

“This has two big implications. First, NI will have to continue to follow EU rules when it comes to production of goods going on sale in NI. In the future, this will mean the NI Assembly (or Westminster) adopting amendments made by EU institutions relating to those standards.

“Second, and immediately, new procedures will be needed for goods moving across the Irish Sea… The UK Government has confirmed both these implications. What they haven’t confirmed is exactly what these procedures will be.”

The protocol is not solely about trade. It also covers the Common Travel Area and guarantees the continuation of some, but not all, EU equality directives.

Moreover, NI is outside the EU, has no representation within that union any more, and no decision-making powers in the UK-EU Joint and Specialised committees overseeing the protocol.

In terms of broader concerns, that depends on any UK-EU deal. If there is a deal, the more closely the UK and EU are aligned the softer the impact on NI will be. If there is no deal, Northern Ireland is set for a spike in bureaucracy – including duties paid on all goods entering NI from GB (which could be rebated later if those goods remain in NI).

Per Dr Hayward: “In the short-term, there is a lack of information about what the changes will be and how they will be managed. This means that uncertainty continues. In turn this means that either businesses will decide to avoid GB-NI trade altogether or else – if they hold on – they will be hard pushed to make the changes in time… The knock-on effects of this are, simply put, higher prices and reduced choice for consumers in NI.”


These concerns echo a report from the NI Affairs Committee at Westminster, released this week.

Unfettered Access: Customs Arrangements in Northern Ireland after Brexit says: “With less than six months to go, businesses are still in the dark about what they should be preparing for on 1 January 2021. The situation is now urgent, and the continued lack of detail risks Northern Ireland not being prepared for the new trading arrangements, an outcome which would have significant economic consequences.

“We remain to be convinced that the Government fully understands that its political approach, apparently informed by limited understanding of how business works, provides neither the clarity nor the detail that Northern Ireland business requires. Political theory cannot trump commercial necessity. We also remain to be convinced that the cumulative impact of Protocol uncertainty, coupled to Covid-19, has been fully reflected upon.”

To look at just one industry, local retailers have been campaigning for clarity for years and remain frustrated at a lack of progress.

But this is everyone’s problem. Brexit is an issue for the whole of the United Kingdom but confusion over just what the NI Protocol leaves Northern Ireland far more exposed than Great Britain. This must change.

If you read all this and feel like you know more and know less at the same time, that is understandable.

Uncertainty is rife. Everything is questions, nothing is answers, the referendum was over four years ago and real, actual, total Brexit is in five and a half months.

Covid-19 has understandably taken Brexit off the front pages and pushed it out of the forefront of people’s minds.

Yet the pandemic hasn’t made Brexit any easier, it is now much more difficult.

We all need some specifics. We all need some clarity.

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