What will Brexit mean for the North and cross-Border trade?
Despite assurances, concerns remain about impact on farming, politics and security
Northern Ireland Secretary, and pro-Brexit campaigner Theresa Villiers has tried to reassure people that cross-Border trade will not be damaged by Brexit. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
Earlier this morning, as it was becoming clear that the UK might vote for Brexit, the Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers tried to provide some reassurance that trade between the North and South and between Britain and Ireland would not be damaged.
“It would be manifestly in the interests of both the UK and Ireland to find a way to do that,” she told David Dimbleby on the BBC.
Judging by the effects on the British pound and the volatility of the markets, there are few indications that people in Northern Ireland or the Republic were convinced by such assurances.
Indeed the concern is that the result could not only damage trade but will have serious implications for areas such as business generally, farming, politics and possibly even security.
Northern Ireland clearly is entering a period of uncertainty now that the people of Britain and Northern Ireland have voted to leave the European Union, notwithstanding that a majority in the North – 56 per cent to 44 per cent – favoured remaining in the EU.
This is uncharted territory; nobody has a clear map of what Brexit will lead to. Above all else what is vital for Northern Ireland is that political equilibrium is maintained.
The North, after some three years of frequently deadlocked government, appeared to be entering a period of stability after last November’s Fresh Start Agreement. The DUP and Sinn Féin, the two dominant parties, have been working well together after the new Northern Executive was formed and a programme for government is being put in place.
Now, however, Sinn Féin appears determined to put a sensitive constitutional issue on the agenda.
Martin McGuinness and party chairman Declan Kearney were quickly out of the blocks in arguing that the logic of Northern Ireland voting to Remain but the overall UK Brexit vote trumping that result was the necessity for a Border poll on a united Ireland.
Ms Villiers will argue that all the opinion polls indicate there is no appetite for such a plebiscite. Sinn Féin and possibly the SDLP will contend that Brexit changes everything and that the mood of the people must be tested through a Border poll.
They will also point to the result opening calls for another Scottish independence referendum and that equally the result could have constitutional implications for Northern Ireland.
It’s not quite what Northern Ireland needs at this stage in terms of trying to bed down politics and escape from the previous years of unsettled government.
The result also will test whether senior politicians such as British chancellor George Osborne, the Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan and the EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan were correct in warning that Brexit will financially damage sectors such as industry, business and agriculture.
On a recent visit to Border areas Mr Osborne said that it was not possible to argue that “you will leave the EU and you will have all of the benefits but none of the costs”.
Ms Villiers may contend, as she did this morning, that the common travel area will remain and the trucks and lorries will still ferry goods both ways across the Border.
Mr Osborne argued then that the logic of Brexit was that there must be Border tariffs, which would damage and slow down trade.
Mr Osborne also said the freedom of people from Britain and Northern Ireland to travel within the EU would end with Brexit.
“Is the right way to control immigration to wreck our economy? That does not seem to me like a sensible plan for anyone,” he said.
Now that the battle has been fought and won and lost the British and Irish governments may attempt to play down such warnings and limit the damage as far as possible.
Nonetheless, there appeared to be logic to Mr Osborne’s warning; or as the Minister Flanagan said during one of the debates: “No matter how much planning and mitigating and negotiating . . . we simply don’t yet know just how much it might mean for the Border, for North-South cooperation and for the all-island economy.”
Mr Osborne, Mr Flanagan and European agriculture commissioner Mr Hogan have also warned about how farmers could be badly hit by Brexit.
They pointed out that for every £10 earned by Northern Ireland farmers, £8.70 comes from the EU Common Agricultural Policy.
Leave campaigners responded that this support would be matched from money that would be saved by Britain ending its net contributions to the running of the EU.
The big question here is how high up the agenda of concern will agriculture – and in particular Northern Ireland farmers – be for the next British prime minister and government. Mr Hogan said to put it “bluntly, were it not for European assistance, many farms would not alone generate significant losses, but would struggle, and in many cases fail to survive”.
There are no guarantees that outside the EU the British government will be equally generous to Northern farmers.
More generally, Mr Hogan has asked: “If any form of land border is reintroduced, how will this disrupt the substantial cross-Border trade in agri-food products?
“There is constant daily movement of live animals for fattening, and dairy products, to name just two elements of the trading relationship.”
The decision also raises a question about future extradition arrangements between the North and South and Britain and the Republic.
The Alliance leader and former minister of justice David Ford said exiting the EU would undermine current North-South extradition processes.
The PSNI chief constable George Hamilton did not quite go that far when questioned about the matter by the British House of Commons Northern Ireland affairs committee.
He said future extradition arrangements between the North and South could be a “bit clunky” and more costly were Britain to leave the EU. But they should not be insurmountable, he said.
This monumental decision will feed into and effect many other aspects of life in Northern Ireland and Ireland.
It’s hard to gainsay that it will create instability and uncertainty at a time when Northern Ireland requires the opposite.