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Brexit’s potential to wreak socio-economic havoc on the island of Ireland compels the Government to allocate adequate resources in order to mitigate against the worst case scenario of a hard border. Macdara Doyle writes ahead of the UK’s triggering of Article 50.
In recent weeks the Government has set out a number of priorities for the forthcoming EU-UK negotiations on Brexit. In short, the key areas of concern are: preserving the Common Travel Area, protecting the Good Friday Agreement and preventing the creation of a ‘hard border’.
Few could quibble with any of this. After all, as has been pointed out by Owen Reidy, the Congress Assistant General Secretary with responsibility for Northern Ireland: “The stability of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is no trivial matter… in the aftermath of the (recent) attempted murder of a police officer by the ‘New IRA’, the Northern Ireland Police Federation warned that a post-Brexit ‘hard border’ could put police ‘in the terrorist firing line’.”
In other words, a hard border and any undermining of either the Good Friday Agreement or the ‘peace gains’ made since 1998, could have a destabilising impact on the wider politics of Northern Ireland. But what has been missing from the official discourse on Brexit – a point that Congress has repeatedly raised – is the potentially disastrous impact on jobs and livelihoods, north and south of the border.
There are tens, if not hundreds of thousands of jobs and family livelihoods bound up directly and indirectly with north-south and east-west trade. Until we know the final shape of any Brexit deal it is hard to state with real precision how many of those jobs are potentially vulnerable.
At a minimum we know there are some 25,000 workers who traverse the border on a daily basis for work. In the event of a hard or even less than welcoming border, will those 25,000 individuals be forced to seek alternative employment in their own jurisdiction? These are the sort of issues that a government plan on Brexit must address. Especially as the figure is likely to be far higher than 25,000, when all industries and sectors with a connection to north-south and east-west trade are taken into account.
It would be a foolish government that did not plan for a worst-case scenario and critically, the put in place the resources to adequately deal with this. Of necessity this must involve the institutions of the European Union in creating space and latitude for future Irish governments to respond with imagination and alacrity to job and livelihood losses.
As Brexit itself has starkly reminded us, working people and progressives across Europe have lost faith in the European project. That stems primarily from the unilateral decision – in response to the 2008 meltdown in the private banking sector – to drive down living standards across the EU, punish the worst affected populations and erode the foundations of Social Europe.
There is little chance of that faith being restored if, at some future date, hundreds or thousands of workers negatively affected by Brexit are effectively cut loose and casually informed that EU regulations or indifference forbids crucial support being provided. Equally, the UK authorities have a clear responsibility to help minimise the negative impact of Brexit, both in Northern Ireland and south of the border. Bear in mind that 56 per cent of Northern Ireland’s electorate voted to remain in Europe.
As Congress General Secretary Patricia King has pointed out: “Given that the UK is a key trading partner, and the fact that the Republic of Ireland may essentially be the new EU land border, it is imperative that the Irish government takes a lead role in negotiations with the remaining 27 member states to ensure that our unique needs and circumstances are addressed.”
In short, we need a plan to protect and save jobs – and the resources to do it.