What are the implications of Brexit for Northern Ireland?

Posted By: July 03, 2016

Mark Devenport. BBC NI. July 2, 2016

Our politicians are embroiled in discussions about the implications of Brexit on both sides of the Irish Sea, but so far not a lot of concrete ideas have emerged.

Both the SDLP and Sinn Fein have suggested creating an all Ireland national forum to consider the implications of Brexit.

On Saturday, Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald said the Irish government had confirmed such a forum would be set up.

Maybe it would lead to something, but Unionists would probably shy away and, at first glance, it looks like a talking shop.

Stormont and Dublin ministers are discussing Brexit in their North South Council and an early meeting of the East West British Irish Council has been promised. Neither of these spin-offs from the Good Friday Agreement have proved especially dynamic.

But if the UK does sever its EU links then their role could become much more important.

As Professor Brendan O’Leary recently pointed out in a lecture at Queen’s University, the BIC already straddles islands like Jersey Guernsey and the Isle of Man which are not EU members.

The Remain camp will no doubt continue to press for Northern Ireland to retain its EU status.

However the opposition Nicola Sturgeon ran into in Brussels shows this is likely to prove an uphill struggle, assuming the next UK prime minister doesn’t perform a U turn.

So how might what Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan described as the “unique circumstances” of the island of Ireland be recognised?

Both the Irish and British governments have already made it clear they want to preserve the free movement of goods and people – this will require some first class diplomacy if it is to amount to an Irish “opt-out” from barriers erected elsewhere.

On the ground, perhaps the remainers could turn to the old Europhile John Hume’s dictum that “it’s people that have rights not territory“?

Alongside all the various talking shops, might Dublin consider, for example, setting up an agency to liaise with Irish passport holders resident outside its borders?

That could ensure these EU citizens still have access to European programmes like the Erasmus educational exchanges or the Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

While the DUP would no doubt oppose any initiative they believe might be aimed at watering down Northern Ireland’s constitutional status within the UK, there seems agreement around the executive table about ensuring Northern Ireland gets a “good deal”.

Stormont’s leavers and remainers can at least make common cause by lobbying a future prime minister for extra cash funds to replace any European peace or cross border funding which local groups stand to lose.

The challenge in the months ahead will be to ensure the big picture divide between the parties over both the future of the EU and the UK doesn’t paralyse the task of trying to alleviate the practical impact of Brexit on ordinary citizens.