We are now in the phoney war period between the Brexit vote and the British government invoking Article 50 of the European Union Treaty to begin negotiating to leave the EU. And nobody – neither citizens nor governments – knows what’s going to happen next. It was best summed up by the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt at the British Irish Association conference in Oxford earlier this month when he said: “We went on a fact-finding mission to Brussels recently. It was a failure. There are no facts.”
At the same conference an uncharacteristically angry Peter Sutherland, who as former head of the World Trade Organisation should know what he’s talking about, was adamant that if the post-Brexit UK was going to enter into trade agreements with countries outside Europe, a hard British-Irish customs frontier (including along the Irish border) was inevitable.
I don’t know much about international trade but I do know about cooperation across the Irish border. And it is clear that this is in serious jeopardy from Brexit. EU support has been absolutely central to the implementation of the North-South ‘strand two’ of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This is one of the quiet success stories of that Agreement: Peter Robinson used to say regularly that as a result of it relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland have never been better.
By far the most important financial supporter of cross-border cooperation on the island of Ireland has been the European Union. Since 1990 the EU has supported the cross-border INTERREG programme to the tune of €810 million (with another €324 million coming in the required matching funding from the Irish, Northern Irish and, in recent years, Scottish governments). Uniquely in Europe Northern Ireland and the Irish border region also have their own cross-community and cross-border PEACE programme. Since 1995 this has received nearly €1.6 billion in EU funds, with an additional €702 million being provided by the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. That’s nearly three and a half billion euro provided as a result of EU programmes to Northern Ireland and the Irish border region in 25 years. That is all at risk now from Brexit – for does anybody believe that the British Government is going to step in and replicate such huge sums?
Here is a small flavour of some of what this EU funding has led to: more than 1,300 businesses collaborating across the border as a result of networking projects; over 100 projects to promote cooperation and exchange of best practice between public bodies; 50,000 people taken off hospital waiting lists and benefiting in other ways from cross-border health cooperation; over 150,000 school students involved in cross-border educational exchanges; the building of the Peace Bridge in Derry and the modernisation of the Belfast to Dublin Enterprise train service. One could go on and on.
The then head of the EU Commission, Jacques Delors, explicitly aimed the EU’s funding to support the objectives of ‘strand two’ of the Good Friday Agreement, namely “to develop consultation, cooperation and action within the island of Ireland – including on an all-island and cross-border basis – on matters of mutual interest.” I know as somebody who worked with the relevant policy makers for 14 years up to 2013 that all but a small part of North-South cooperation during that period (in economic development, local authority partnerships, education and health) would simply not have happened without EU funding.
So what about North-South cooperation in the future? All I can say at this point in time is that it is extremely uncertain. The EU’s regulations do allow for cooperation between EU and non-EU countries. Norway, for example, is involved in four INTERREG programmes with Sweden, Denmark and Finland (although there is a long history of cooperation between those countries that predates their membership of the EU). However participation by non-EU countries requires them to follow all the relevant EU policies and regulations, and, most importantly, contribute significant national funding. There are also a few examples of cross-border cooperation initiatives outside EU programmes – for example, along the French-Swiss border – but these are backed by special legal agreements and dedicated governmental funding.
Post-Brexit participation in EU programmes would not be at the discretion of the NI Executive but would need the consent of the UK government. In the post-Brexit environment of political confusion, anti-European sentiment and ever tighter budgets can anybody see Westminister/Whitehall negotiating on Northern Ireland’s behalf for EU cross-border programmes? Or, in the absence of EU funding, deciding whether the required cross-border funding would come from Stormont or Whitehall? Or sanctioning a complex, stand alone, legal agreement to allow cooperation between the peripheral and traditionally neglected counties along the Irish border? As a recent Centre for Cross Border Studies/Cooperation Ireland paper put it: “The crucial question is whether the political will would exist, with accompanying financial resources, to sustain the current levels of cross-border cooperation.”¹ My personal opinion is that this is extremely unlikely. While the North South Ministerial Council, the seven North-South bodies and companies, and the limited areas of inter-ministerial cooperation under the Good Friday Agreement will continue to exist, elsewhere we are likely to be returning to the kind of small-scale, piecemeal cooperation, with little regional impact, that was the situation before the 1990s.
When it comes to trade and business, the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin has concluded that the Republic of Ireland is more important to Northern exporters than vice-versa: €1.8 billion exported from north to south, but only €1.2 million from south to north. Those small and medium enterprises in the North for whom the Republic is their premier export market are going to be hit hardest by the erection of tariffs along the border. These are also the labour-intensive firms which employ the largest proportion of the North’s workforce. And then, of course, there are the North’s farmers, who are 87% dependent on EU single farm payments for their income!
The post-Brexit situation is a real nightmare for the Irish Government, as it struggles to reconcile its new and utterly changed relationships with its closest political and trading partners, the EU and the UK. The government has made the calculation that the Northern Ireland peace process, including North-South relations, is the best weapon it has in its arguments in Brussels that a special case should be made for Northern Ireland in the unhappy post-Brexit future (perhaps including channelling EU funds for the North through Dublin?). Its current row with the European Commission over the €13 billion in unpaid tax it has been told to recoup from Apple isn’t helping that case.
The Taoiseach’s mishandling of the proposal for an all-island forum to discuss Brexit – immediately shot down by Arlene Foster because she hadn’t been consulted – indicates that it is not only in London where there is considerable confusion. I expect this eminently sensible suggestion will re-emerge in some form in the near future. Enda Kenny’s echoing of Sinn Fein’s call for a Border Poll because he wants a future united Ireland scenario to be facilitated inside the EU like German re-unification, is another confusing signal, upsetting the unionists unnecessarily for no obvious post-Brexit purpose. It will be interesting to see if provision for a future poll on Irish unity ends up in any eventual UK-EU agreement. This is something the Scottish SNP Government would dearly like to replicate to avoid a lengthy and difficult negotiation to join the EU if one day its people vote for independence.
¹Referendum Briefing Paper 3. The UK Referendum on Membership of the EU: Cross-Border Cooperation, Peace-Building and Regional Development. Centre for Cross Border Studies/Cooperation Ireland