Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster and her deputy Martin McGuinness have written to Theresa May to highlight the issues of most concern to the province arising from Brexit.
Their worries focus primarily on fears that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic – the UK’s only land border – could impede free movement of people, goods or services, or become a catalyst for illegal activity.
They also highlight related concerns that increasing costs will undermine the competitiveness of companies in the province, along with fears for Northern Ireland’s energy supply, the loss of billions of euros in EU funding, and the impact on agriculture and fisheries, which are more important to the Northern Irish economy than they are to the UK as a whole.
“Since 1994, for example, we have benefited to the tune of €13 billion of funding from Europe and during the period 2014-2020 we would expect to draw down over €3.5 billion,” they noted.
Although Northern Ireland voted 56 percent to Remain in the EU, Foster and her Democratic Unionist Party campaigned vocally for Brexit. Her letter prompted political opponents to say she has had a belated change of mind.
“The First Minister has serious questions to answer over the breathtaking reverse ferret she is currently performing,” said Claire Hanna of the Social Democratic and Labour Party. “Ms Foster has clearly realised the error of her ways in backing Brexit and now the horse has bolted, is asking the Conservative government to close the gate.”
The taunts prompted the First Minister to appear on Radio Ulster to deny she was making a U-turn. “Brexit means Brexit, but that doesn’t mean that we close our eyes to the challenges that are there,” she said. “We’re extracting ourselves from European Union and it is of course right that we identify where those challenges lie, but I fundamentally believe that there are huge opportunities.”
McGuinness, who represents Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland’s government and campaigned for Remain, dismissed “point-scoring” by the First Minister’s opponents.
“It’s very important, given we were on different sides of the debate in the run in to the referendum to, in the aftermath of the vote, to come together to do the best we can to protect the interests of the people we represent,” he said.
The letter to the UK Prime Minister focused on five overlapping concerns:
“Firstly and most obviously, this region is unique in that it is the only part of the UK which has a land border with an EU member state. There have been difficult issues relating to the border throughout our history and the peace process. We therefore appreciate your stated determination that the border will not become an impediment to the movement of people, goods and services. It must not become a catalyst for illegal activity or compromise in any way the arrangements relating to criminal justice and tackling organised crime. It is equally important that the border does not create an incentive for those who would wish to undermine the peace process and/or the political settlement. The border also has particular significance for the agri-food sector and animal health.”
“Secondly it is critical to our economy that our businesses, both indigenous and FDI [foreign direct investment] companies, retain their competitiveness and do not incur additional costs. We therefore need to retain as far as possible the ease with which we currently trade with EU member states and, also importantly retain access to labour. Policies need to be sufficiently flexible to allow access to unskilled as well as highly skilled labour. This applies not only to businesses and the private sector but also to public sector employers who are heavily dependent on EU and other migrant labour. There is also the matter of the many thousands of people who commute each way across the border to work on a daily basis.”
“Thirdly, energy is a key priority, given that there are inherent cost and supply issues in a small, isolated market so we will need to ensure that nothing in the negotiations process undermines the vital aspect of our economy.”
“Fourthly, EU funds have been hugely important to our economy and the peace process. Since 1994, for example, we have benefited to the tune of €13 billion of funding from Europe and during the period 2014-2020 we would expect to draw down over €3.5 billion. The current uncertainty around the ability to draw down a proportion of these funds, and the absence of EU programmes in the culture is of real concern to a range of sectors.”
5. Agriculture and fishing
“A further key issue for us is the agri-food sector, including fisheries which represent a much more important component of our regional economy than it does for the UK as a whole. This is reflected in the fact that approximately 10% of UK receipts from the CAP accrue to Northern Ireland (accounting for the majority of our EU funding) and a large proportion of our food and agricultural output is exported to other EU and non-EU countries. Our agri-food sector, and hence our wider economy, is therefore uniquely vulnerable both to the loss of EU funding, and to potential tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade.”