SDLP calls for North to get unique status in Brexit talks

Time to build an Irish solution to this European problem, says leader Colum Eastwood

Businesses on the border of Northern Ireland and Ireland a decision to make, relocate and become part of Europe, or stay in the UK. EIther way they know there's a bumpy road ahead. Video: Enda O'Dowd


The SDLP has called for an “Irish solution to a European problem” by ensuring that Northern Ireland is conferred with unique legal status during the Brexit negotiations.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood proposing a motion in the Northern Assembly on Monday calling for EU special status for Northern Ireland also urged the DUP and Ulster Unionist Party to engage in the all-island “conversation on Brexit” announced by Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

Brexit is the biggest challenge facing these two islands in a very long time. The fallout from the referendum result has already been considerable – the fallout from a potential hard Brexit will be all the greater and all the worse,” said Mr Eastwood.

“The British treasury has reaffirmed its estimates that after 15 years leaving the EU via a hard Brexit will mean a loss of between £38 billion (€42bn) and £66 billion per year in tax receipts. The fictional referendum figure of an extra £350 million a week doesn’t seem so favourable now,” he added.

Mr Eastwood said that the DUP should get “their heads around the fact that this Tory leadership doesn’t give a damn about the North – they never have”.

“It is therefore time to build an Irish solution to this European problem. This Assembly and the Executive should now work with the Irish and British governments to ensure that unique legal status is attained for Northern Ireland in the forthcoming negotiations,” he added.

Mr Eastwood urged the DUP and UUP to reconsider their refusal to engage with Mr Kenny’s proposed all-island Brexit forum. “I can promise them that in the confines of that forum there is no trapdoor to Irish unity. Nor is it a papist conspiracy,” he said.

While the Assembly was debating the SDLP motion the British House of Lords EU committee was at Stormont hearing evidence from business, academic, community and political representatives on the impact of leaving the union on British-Irish relations.

‘Tribal identity’

Peter Sheridan of Co-operation Ireland and a former PSNI assistant chief constable warned that Brexit could bring matters of “tribal identity” to the fore again.

“One of the things the Good Friday Agreement did was to remove that tribal issue of identity. You could be British or Irish or both. For many Northern nationalists in particular they were comfortable in a Northern Ireland that was within the context of Europe. A Northern Ireland within the context of the UK is not what they were thinking about,” he said.

“There is the potential that that might raise the issue of tribal identity again. I would not want to overemphasise that issue of civil unrest but we should consider it as part of what we are thinking about and not become complacent around it,” added Mr Sheridan.

Angela McGowan, director of the Confederation of British Industry in Northern Ireland warned that Brexit could damage the North’s ability to attract foreign direct investment (FDI).

“There has always been a policy aim in Northern Ireland to attract FDI and it is not just about creating jobs for us, this is about creating companies which have high value added, which bring with them good management practice and say, for example, technology transfer,” she said.

“Investors seek stability, and obviously with Brexit the macroeconomic stability will not be there and we do think that will affect FDI. We do fear for FDI and our ability to attract it,” added Ms McGowan.

Prof David Phinnemore, professor of European politics at Queen’s University Belfast told the committee that a key concern was whether the “voice of Northern Ireland” would be heard in the run-up to the UK formally quitting the European Union.

Prof Phinnemore said he feared that the Brexit discussions would be “London-led and London-centred with at best lip service paid to the devolved administrations”.

Ruth Taillon of the Centre for Cross-Border Studies said Brexit as well as having implications for the free movement of people across the Border had the “potential for unpicking the Good Friday [agreement] and the other institutions and structures that were set up” to support the 1998 agreement. She said it also had the potential to make the Border politically contentious again which could have implications for the peace process.