Thursday, 9 March 2017

Irish debate on Brexit needs to move on from referendum

After the EU vote the terms ‘leaver’ and ‘remainer’ became effectively meaningless.  More accurately, we now have ‘Brexit realists’, who accept the result, and ‘Brexit deniers’, who are still fighting the referendum campaign, almost 9 months after it officially finished.

In Ireland, north and south, ‘denial’ can cause real damage, because it won’t allow the focus of debate to address how both parts of the island can prepare for Brexit.  Article 50 will be triggered, without serious impediment in the House of Commons, and while many of the details are still uncertain, the UK will leave the European Union.  We also know the broad strategy the government intends to pursue after it leaves.

Surely even those who would rather Brexit didn’t happen can plan to make the best of the circumstances we’re in?  As yet, there’s little sign of that happening.  

Alone among the UK’s devolved institutions, the Northern Ireland Executive is without a document outlining its strategy for the leaving process.  In the Republic, the Dublin government convened an “all Ireland conversation”, composed overwhelmingly of deniers, which did little to address the practical issues Brexit presents to our neighbouring state.

Meanwhile, various political parties are encouraging the entirely unattainable notion that Northern Ireland will have a “special status” within the UK, which preserves membership of the single market.  Even if that were achievable, and conclusively it is not, it would simultaneously decimate the political process and construct barriers to trade with our biggest trading partner (the rest of the UK), in a spurious attempt to protect trade with a much smaller market (the Republic and the rest of the EU).

Earlier this week, Jeff Peel wrote a calmly argued and carefully evidenced article outlining the opportunities Brexit offers Northern Ireland.  It actually doesn’t even matter any more whether the potential opportunities are greater inside the EU.  We’ve had that debate, and now it’s time to prepare for new circumstances.  

Many of the challenges that could prevent Northern Ireland flourishing after Brexit already hold back our economy anyway, so it’s particularly disappointing that our political leaders are so unfocused on the preparations.  It exposes a critical ongoing lack of “policy architecture” as it’s been described by the QUB economist, Graham Brownlow, besides the more obvious problems with unstable institutions.

The Republic of Ireland is less impervious to practical political considerations.  The Dublin government has used emotive language about Northern Ireland to vent its anxieties about Brexit, but, as David Hoey argues today, it faces far more fundamental economic problems, because its economy is closely linked both to the UK and the US.  Two thirds of its exports will be destined for markets outside the remaining EU nation states, when Britain leaves.

The only “special status” that David believes makes some sense, allows the Republic to remain within the EU, but grants some special dispensation to reflect its dependency on the UK economy and its geographical place in the British Isles.  Another option, as politically unlikely as it seems at present, is for the Dublin government to follow its London counterpart out of the EU.  A discussion around ‘Irexit’ has already started, and time will tell whether it gains momentum.    

The debate about whether Brexit will happen or not was conducted almost twelve months ago.  It will continue, as an intellectual exercise, up to and beyond the UK leaving the EU.  Policy makers on either side of the border can’t afford that luxury.  They need to move on and start thinking about trade and prosperity in post-Brexit Ireland.   

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