Forget Theresa May’s boilerplate encomium in the Commons the other day about never being ‘neutral’ about the Union. (Hardly as emphatic as Margaret Thatcher’s claim Northern Ireland was ‘as British as Finchley’). The Prime Minister is leading you up the garden path. She surely knows by now that Brexit has big implications – dire and far-reaching ones – for Northern Ireland. Here’s eight of them:
- A funding black hole. All in, Northern Ireland draws down about €600m euro of funding a year from the European Union. Even if Whitehall manages to wangle a transitional arrangement out of the Commission as part of the Brexit negotiations, it’s hard to see how that funding could possibly last beyond 2020. That leaves a pretty hefty financial hole. If a 50k Irish language grant is enough to destabilise the political institutions, what do you think losing 12,000 times that amount will do?
Get used to being ignored, because it’s a sign of things to come. And bear in mind where we are in the electoral cycle. Pleasing her political base – in this case English marginal seats – is where Theresa May’s attention will increasingly be focused.
Ah, but who would she have met with, given the little local difficulty with the Executive? Fair enough, but it would have been easy enough to arrange a speech to a bunch of business types, if only to show parity of esteem with Wales and Scotland.
2. Britain will become more English. Where was Theresa May this week after stopping off in Wales and Scotland during her short-lived ’listening’ tour of the UK? Not in Northern Ireland, that’s for sure. Rather than hop across the Irish Sea before triggering Article 50 – as promised – she instead made her way to Birmingham to campaign for her candidate in the West Midlands metro mayoral race, Andy Street.
3. Economic impact. Of course, if Britain goes down with a dose of the Brexit-related economic sniffles, Northern Ireland will be flat on its back with TB. We know this because analysis from the Assembly’s own committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment tells us as much. Its respected adviser, Dr. Leslie Budd from the Open University’s Business School, reckons Brexit could knock 3% off Northern Ireland’s GDP. That’s tens of thousands of jobs.
4. Out of the single market – possibly out of customs union. The collapse of the Executive means there’s already talk of postponing Peter Robinson’s cherished goal of reducing corporation tax to match the RoI’s 12.5% rate, a move that was scheduled for 2018. The Irish development agency staff must be rubbing their hands with glee; there jobs just get easier and easier. Arlene Foster can moan all she likes about Dublin ‘poaching’ the North’s investment, but Brexit will now prove telling when it comes to attracting future foreign cash. Why on earth would any company,
looking to export into the single market, opt for Northern Ireland over the Irish Republic? As IDA Ireland’s website puts it (unsubtly):
‘Ireland is a committed member of the European Union and provides companies with guaranteed access to the European market. Ireland is the only English speaking country in the Eurozone and provides an ideal hub for organisations seeking a European base.’
Northern Ireland’s private sector will be reduced to the sandwich van outside the studio where they film Game of Thrones. Until they stop making it next year.
5. A hard border is increasingly likely. This is surely one of the easier issues for Theresa May to deal with amidst the cornucopia of grief that Brexit represents. Yet eight months on we’re no nearer to learning how invasive future border arrangements will turn out to be. Having already confirmed Britain will be outside the single market (and possibly outside the customs unions too) it’s clear that something is in the offing, despite no-one in either the British or Irish governments having any enthusiasm for imposing a hard border. Yet as Professor Jonathan Tonge from Liverpool University put it the other day in a research paper for the European Parliament, ‘customs controls [are] probable and immigration checks possible.’
6. Impending financial crisis. Any slowdown in the economy, or reductions in government funding, combined with the lost EU cash will deliver a crisis for Northern Ireland’s public finances from 2019 onwards. And when she takes her begging bowl to the Treasury, Arlene Foster (or successor) will find Greater Manchester’s new mayor, Andy Burnham, already sat there in the Chancellor’s outer office with a better story to tell about how scarce public funding should be spent in his patch instead. Presumably while he lobbies for the scrapping of the Barnett Formula.
7. Impending political crisis. Of course, a financial crisis is followed, as sure as night follows day, by a political crisis. The row over welfare cuts will be nothing compared to the scraps to come. Assuming it ever meets again, the Executive’s budget-setting ahead of April 2019 will be utterly brutal. At which point proceedings will probably topple over again.
8. NI can rejoin EU. Assuming political and economic gravity applies as described above, what remedies are possible? Step forward Brexit Secretary, David Davis, who helpfully confirmed this week that Northern Ireland could remain in the EU if it becomes part of the Irish Republic. Can enough EUnionists be marshalled to make a border poll a bigger question about Northern Ireland’s place in the EU?
Irish reunification, as I’ve tried to argue in my book, is already in prospect due to a combination of factors ranging from long-term population trends through to its obvious economic utility. But Brexit is an accelerant. Political kerosene, poured over all the other issues.
By triggering Article 50, Theresa May has just set it alight. Moreover, much of the Brexit-induced pain and uncertainty outlined above could be avoided if Northern Ireland merged with (not ‘joined’ or ‘was absorbed by’) the Irish Republic.
Just as the Good Friday Agreement came to be dubbed ‘Sunningdale for slow learners,’ might we look back at this week in a few years’ time and see this was the moment we truly entered Northern Ireland’s endgame?
Kevin Meagher is the author of ‘A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about,’ published by Biteback
(Postscript – Why only eight impacts and not a neat, rounded ten? These, I would argue, are merely the ‘known knowns’. There are effects of Brexit that we are not fully aware of yet. Trust me, it gets worse).