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Theresa May Brexit Speech signals a plan for Britain - but not one for Northern Ireland


By Andrew Webb

While headlines and articles have played up uncertainty over Brexit in recent months, it has been clear for some time that the direction of travel was for the UK to leave the single market - the ability to control immigration has been a key requirement for the UK Government and there is no way to reconcile access to the single market with immigration controls.

Confirmation that the UK will leave the single market, and in all likelihood the customs union, came in Prime Minister May's speech. I suppose it now becomes a case of how to make the best of this.

I can see how a dynamic salesperson could try and make the scenario attractive - let's unleash Britain's genius and strike out into a world full of opportunity. Let's 'Make Britain Great Again' even.

Not only is that vacuous nonsense, it ignores the reality of gravity and geography. Trade gravitates to those geographies that are closest, and the share of trade we do with our nearest neighbours will take decades to replace from other sources. Over 70% of imports into Northern Ireland come from the EU and 60% of Northern Ireland export sales go to the EU.

I'm sure the farmer who currently sells sheep freely to Ireland but who will soon face tariffs will not find immediate recompense through a free trade agreement with - say - Brazil or Canada.

I'm sure that Invest NI will continue to point to our impressive skills and competitive costs when it comes to attracting investment. Both remain true, but access to the EU single market was always a strong selling point. With that off the table, the target market for inward investment changes and the sales pitch becomes harder.

Across the various negotiating points laid out by the Prime Minister, specific reference was made to the UK's relationship with Ireland, something which has massive significant for Northern Ireland.

While the intention is to maintain the Common Travel Area, it is difficult to see how that will work in practice.

It is often cited that the Common Travel Area pre-dates UK and Irish membership of the EU.

This is true, but it is now the case that Ireland will be part of the EU and the UK will not. That changes the dynamic and means agreeing a Common Travel Area will require agreement between the UK and all the other EU member states.

I detected a subtle and yet very telling line in the Prime Minister's speech where she stated: "This Government has a plan for Britain."

Britain, as pedantic types have been only too glad to tell me previously, does not include Northern Ireland. That is the sense I got from the Prime Minister's speech - there might be a plan for Britain, but there sure isn't one for Northern Ireland. There are seriously challenging times ahead.

Andrew Webb is an economist and managing director of Webb Advisory

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