How Brexit meets 2016 concerns of Foster and McGuinness

How Brexit meets 2016 concerns of Foster and McGuinness

The Brexit concerns of Northern Ireland are of far more consequence than mere trade and industry.

They are about how communities deeply scarred by the Troubles can continue to co-exist peacefully.

The North was at an enormous disadvantage during the Brexit negotiations by not having a functioning Stormont assembly and not having a working Northern executive.

Both of the other devolved governments, of Scotland and Wales, had their say in the negotiations.

The clear indication of what the concerns of the Northern executive would have been is set out in a letter of August 14, 2016.

The letter was from the then first minister, Arlene Foster, and the then deputy first minister, the late Martin McGuinness, to the UK prime minister, Theresa May.

How Brexit meets 2016 concerns of Foster and McGuinness

In the letter, they identified five matters of “particular significance” for Northern Ireland, following the Brexit referendum outcome.

How does last week’s withdrawal agreement measure up to those items?

The border was the first issue, the letter noting the “difficult issues relating to the border throughout our history and the peace process”.

The first and deputy first minister said that the border should not become an impediment to the movement of people, goods and services, or, for that matter, to become a catalyst for illegal activity.

That priority has been more or less reflected in the withdrawal agreement, certainly for as long as the UK remains within the EU’s rules during the transition phase.

The backstop, which takes effect after the transition phase, in the absence of any better arrangement, would largely meet the same objective, were it to be implemented.

The second area identified was the maintenance of ease of trade with EU member states and the retention of access to labour.

This point is not as well addressed.

Within the backstop, there is provision for Northern business to obtain licences to export directly to EU markets as if still trading within the single market, but there is an element of bureaucracy. Retaining access to labour could be even more problematic, as the unfettered movement of EU nationals crossing borders for work will no longer be possible.

The common-travel-area arrangements between Ireland and the UK will continue to apply, and Irish citizens in the North will be treated as EU citizens

The third priority was energy supply. The issue seems to have been well-addressed, for example with the maintenance of the Single Electricity Market on the island of Ireland.

The fourth area was funding. Both Mr McGuinness and Ms Foster identified that EU funds coming into Northern Ireland would dry up following Brexit.

Replacing those funds would now seem to have become a matter of brokerage between Belfast and Westminster.

How Brexit meets 2016 concerns of Foster and McGuinness

Lastly, agri-food, including fisheries, was seen as being uniquely vulnerable, both to the loss of EU funding and to potential tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade.

The backstop protects agri-food, but excludes free trade in fish, though, within the proposed framework for the future relationship between the UK and the EU, a settlement on fishing rights and trade in associated products is prioritised.

The withdrawal agreement, as published last week, satisfies many of the concerns of the then first and deputy first ministers.

Now, we do not have a functioning Northern executive.

However, had this withdrawal agreement been concluded within a few weeks of August 2016, it might have been hard for the then Northern executive to dismiss it out of hand.

Brian Keegan is director of public policy and taxation at Chartered Accountants Ireland

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