No-deal Brexit moves from fantasy machismo into stark reality
Urgent need for political leadership at devolved regional level in Northern Ireland
The two remaining candidates for British prime minister describe no-deal Brexit as if it were akin to an unsightly war wound. Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters
It is estimated 55,000 jobs will be at risk in Ireland if the UK crashes out of the EU. In Northern Ireland, the cost of no deal could be over 40,000 jobs (equivalent to more than 1 in 20).
Behind each of those 95,000 “units” is a person. With each person comes networks of family and friends, and with many come “dependents”. Take away one income and numerous lives are affected.
Bills unpaid; rents and mortgages in arrears; insurance policies lapsed. The transition from employee to job-seeker is rarely pain-free. Stress and ill-health increase as the means of managing them diminish.
Although some talk of the “sharp shock” of no deal, the rippling negative effects of each job lost will be wide, deep and long-lasting.
The Northern Ireland civil service has stepped up to the mark and is providing public information where there would otherwise only be radio static
Civil servants in both parts of the island renewed efforts this week to both warn about and prepare for this scenario. Their reports serve to move the prospect of no deal from the realms of fantasy machismo into stark reality. Such efforts have been infused with caution.
For the Irish civil service, this was a necessary but difficult move. The Brexit Contingency Plan Update served to nudge the “known knowns” further out beyond the shade of conspiratorial silence. To do so now is partly to assure the 26 EU member-states that the UK cannot compromise Ireland’s place in the single market. But it is also a strong message to the British government too – particularly on the subject of Northern Ireland, whose vulnerability in no-deal Brexit is laid out quite clearly.
The frankness of Irish Ministers’ comments alongside the report displays a conscious rebuttal to the blasé attitude of some British MPs to the risks of a crash-out Brexit. The two remaining candidates for British prime minister describe no-deal Brexit as if it were akin to an unsightly war wound they’d personally bear with brave nobility.
Game of chicken
It doesn’t look like that from Northern Ireland. In fact, the view is quite different from here. We can only watch the game of chicken between the states, whilst at the same time knowing that Northern Ireland lies at the exact point of potential collision.
In an environment of such existential uncertainty, the provision of facts and analysis plays both a guiding and a sobering role.
The Northern Ireland civil service has stepped up to the mark and is providing public information where there would otherwise only be radio static. The Department for the Economy, in particular, has produced or commissioned several reports that present detailed information and essential statistics.
If the current talks succeed and the Agreement institutions are restored, a no-deal Brexit would be an almighty test of resilience
In the currently liminal state of governance in Northern Ireland – neither devolution nor direct rule – these facts are for public consumption as much as for political decision-making.
The stability and prosperity of Northern Ireland will depend on where two currently-spinning poles of negotiation will fall: UK withdrawal from the EU and the restoration of the NI Assembly and Executive.
Regardless of the outcome of either process, historical judgement will surely be kind to the civil servants in Northern Ireland who have stepped up to the mark in the current crisis. Had they not done so, the “voice” from Northern Ireland would not only be less informed, it would be almost inaudible.
For there is an urgent need for political leadership at the devolved regional level in Northern Ireland. We need politicians making decisions for this place for whom those 40,000 people are not collateral but constituents, voters, friends, neighbours and family.
The Irish Contingency Action Plan broaches this point directly. “Having the [agreement] institutions working on behalf of all the people of Northern Ireland”, it states, “would be crucial in managing the impacts of any Brexit scenario on the island”. The functioning of the Agreement institutions is vital because of their practical and symbolic power.
They are institutions in which unionists, nationalists and those who are “neither” not only share power but also share responsibility. They are institutions in which north/south co-operation is formalised and empowered, and also held accountable. They ensure that the British-Irish relationship is substantively more than inter-governmental conversations, diplomatic niceties or civil service liaison.
And yet if the current talks succeed and the Agreement institutions are restored, a no-deal Brexit would be an almighty test of their resilience. How could they withstand the economic, social, political and security consequences of a crash-out Brexit?
Even as British and Irish ministers urge parties to compromise in Stormont, they will be conscious of what it might take to avoid the no-deal scenario that will undo all their hard work.
Dr Katy Hayward is a Senior Fellow in the UK in a Changing Europe initiative