Third sector: “We must remain in the single market and customs union”

9 Feb 2018 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 9 Feb 2018

NICVA CEO Seamus McAleavey
NICVA CEO Seamus McAleavey

NICVA has joined together with partner organisations in Scotland and Wales to compile a list of key aims for the UK’s withdrawal of the EU. Top of the list is membership of the single market and customs union.

Third sector organisations across the devolved parts of the UK want a Brexit deal that ensures we stay in the single market and customs union.

NICVA, along with its counterparts in Scotland and Wales, released a joint statement on Wednesday outlining what they say are crucial aspects to our withdrawal from the EU - to ensure the best possible outcomes for the UK generally and the community and voluntary sector in particular.

All the groups want a Brexit deal that leads to the healthiest economy possible and which also maintains, as far as possible, the rights and opportunities for citizens of the UK.

For Northern Ireland, however, such an agreement could go further and provide a nice solution to what is the stickiest problem for the local area – the border.

Remaining in the single market and customs union would go a long way to ensuring there is no need for a hard border, and all the problems that would bring.

A potentially encouraging sign, from the point of view of NICVA and its sister organisations, came from the EU this morning when it said that Northern Ireland will stay in the single market. However, this is likely to lead to a backlash from those in the UK seeking a hard Brexit.

The joint statement - cosigned by NICVA as well as the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) and the Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA) – said:

“We believe that this outcome is vitally important for protecting the peace process and preventing the major economic and social impacts for people and businesses that would be presented by the creation of a hard border.”

Seamus McAleavey, Chief Executive of NICVA said: “This crucial next phase of the Brexit negotiations will have major implications for the lives of everyone in Northern Ireland and the over 30,000 people who cross the border daily to work, study, do business, and access health and other services.  It is vital that solutions are found to ensure no hardening of borders on the island or with Great Britain and which do not undermine the peace, stability and co-operation brought about by the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts.”

Other recommendations

A Sufficient Transition Period – to some of the more fervent and voluble Brexit supporters, any transition period is an anathema. However, the whole Brexit period is bewilderingly complex and a process that is, effectively, a gradual Brexit could obviate against problems that right now we don’t even see coming.

The third sector organisations have called for a transition that puts an emphasis on doing things effectively rather than setting firm timetables, saying: “The Government should avoid arbitrary deadlines and prioritise getting it right in a smooth and orderly transition period. This may need to go beyond the government’s stated aim of 24 months.”

Ensure Transparency and Scrutiny – this is a straightforward call to be kept in the loop during Brexit negotiations and any transitional period; for civil society be given an informed voice “and an active role” in any decisions that are being made. This, of course, is a key pillar of any functioning democracy. That it needs to be reiterated in this statement perhaps reflects the Brexit-means-Brexit clarity provided by government since the referendum result.

No Regression on Rights and Protections post Brexit – many community and voluntary organisations have fought hard to secure human or environmental rights and sector representatives do not want to see any valued legislation or support thrown out after withdrawal.

“Many of these rights such as habitat and species protections, workplace rights and gender equality were driven by civil society. We must build on this and have no regression on current rights post Brexit. Nor do we wish the UK to remain ‘frozen in time’. It must continue to enhance and adopt high standards of rights and protections.”

Funding – the EU has several major funding streams and these should be adequately replaced from UK sources. Crucially, there should also be an appraisal of the structures that have been lost and a plan put together for alternative processes.

“Funds repatriated from the EU must continue to be ring-fenced for the key social policy themes such as social cohesion, combating poverty, social inclusion, rural community-led development, employability and the environment. Funding should be distributed based on need and respect the devolved nations. New funding streams should continue to follow long term cycles and be designed and delivered in true partnership with civil society organisations.”

Maintain EU Connections for UK Civil Society – the world is increasingly close together and NICVA, SCVO and WCVA want to see these links maintained, where feasible.

Future planning

There is nothing amazingly new in the recommendations put forward by the third-sector groups. This is unsurprising. Most of the potential pitfalls of Brexit were well known before the June 2016 referendum and there has been an incredible amount of subsequent debate about how these can be avoided – because the stakes are so high.

That the sector’s voice is given due consideration is therefore vitally important. In Northern Ireland this is even more prescient than for other parts of the UK because, as things stand, we have no government to provide us with a common voice; different aspects of society therefore need to be bold about adding their thoughts to the gargantuan task of leaving the EU.

Many charities and social enterprises find themselves in difficult circumstances right now and none will want to see any troubles exacerbated over the next year and beyond.

As we prepare to enter stage two of the Brexit negotiations – after the sometimes torturous first stage, the divorce settlement, was finally agreed – we will finally see firm plans for the future. For any stakeholders (which is everyone) this is the time to be heard.

Per the statement: “The implications for devolution from Brexit are deep and wide-ranging. The outcomes of the current Brexit negotiations could have profound and potentially harmful impacts upon the third sector and on the wider society its serves in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”

This week has already seen some apparent developments in the negotiations. Expect the back and forth to continue right up until our leaving date in March 2019 – and beyond.

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