Northern Ireland’s public affairs magazine, Agenda NI, held a conference recently about the ‘Brexit crisis’. It was a clever title for the event but, almost three months after the referendum, it’s clear that there is no crisis around Brexit, and political attempts to manufacture one are not succeeding.
The exact details will be subject to complex negotiations, but Britain will leave the EU and both parts of the island of Ireland will have to adjust.
For Northern Ireland, Brexit presents specific challenges. There are anxieties about what form the Irish border might take, when it becomes a boundary between the UK and the European Union. The Republic’s ambassador in London, Dan Mulhall, told a Westminster committee last week that he is confident a ‘common travel area’, which guarantees free movement between the two countries, will be preserved.
These border arrangements pre-date membership of the EU and they complement British and southern Irish laws that ensure neither country’s citizens can be treated as ‘foreigners’ in either jurisdiction.
A victims campaigner, Raymond McCord, has challenged Brexit in the High Court, on the basis that it undermines the “peace process”. Although the case will cite clauses from the Good Friday Agreement, Mr McCord’s objections centre on a perceived threat to funding for victims of the Troubles.
It is unlikely that the court will find in his favour. The EU doesn’t form an important part of Northern Ireland’s peace settlement and the Good Friday Agreement is not a foundation-stone of the UK constitution.
The nationalist political parties, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, continue to call for a border poll on the strength of Brexit. Alongside Alliance and the Greens, nationalist MLAs have launched their own court challenge, demanding that Stormont gets to vote on Brexit in a motion of consent (which they intend to withhold).
Even so, they’re struggling to maintain the type of fury which greeted the initial referendum result. Opinion polls suggest that the issue of EU membership is unlikely to change many voters’ views on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status.
Meanwhile, the Dublin government, which opposed Brexit vocally during the referendum campaign, is embroiled in its own row with the European Commission over tax arrangements with US technology giant, Apple. The Republic’s economy is heavily dependent on trade with the UK and, now its low tax deals with foreign investors are under threat, the idea of joining Britain outside the EU doesn’t seem so outlandish.
Even the gloomy forecasts about Brexit’s effects on the economy are proving unfounded. Although the value of sterling has fallen, consumers are spending plenty of money, manufacturers’ order books are full and the hospitality sector is booming. The IMF was forced to admit that ‘turmoil’ it predicted for the financial markets has already ‘subsided’.
There’s still plenty of uncertainty about the future. The prime minister says “Brexit means Brexit”, but that phrase obscures the fact that there are several options for the UK’s status outside the EU. There is disagreement even among government ministers about the desired outcome of negotiations with Brussels.
It’s important that our local politicians think about how Brexit can work for Northern Ireland and which arrangements suit us best. That includes making sure that goods and people can move across the Irish border quickly and easily, while we maintain close relations with our nearest neighbour. It also means considering how PEACE monies and other types of funding can best be replaced outside the EU.
Whether we like it or not Brexit is happening. It might involve some changes, but it won’t cause a crisis, it won’t derail the ‘peace process’ and it won’t collapse the economy. Northern Ireland’s policy makers have a duty to make the best of it, rather than stirring up panic or taking frivolous actions in the law courts.