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Resolving Northern Ireland's existence outside the EU could just be a matter of protocol

Analysis

By John Simpson

Northern Ireland's has wide-ranging and important interests in the delivery of Brexit. But the election has added to the uncertainty for the local economy.

One response would be to wait for firm evidence and definitive policy decisions in London. The views from Dublin and Brussels need to be understood. There are umpteen compelling reasons why a pro-active stance should be adopted. Northern Ireland's businesses and political influencers have work to do, and it's already overdue.

The Northern Ireland community needs to be more aware of the dimensions of the forthcoming negotiations and come up with ideas on how to influence the changing economic and social environment.

Some politicians are involved in a debate about whether Northern Ireland should ask for a special status arising from the EU debate. Unhelpfully, that debate is a mirror of the debate on Brexit or Remain. There are more constructive questions to ask.

The Brexit agenda is taking shape. There is official evidence of goodwill towards NI from the European Commission and from the UK Government. The expectation is that the negotiations will aim to create a seamless or frictionless border.

The exact arrangements which acknowledge the UK and Ireland, the emergence of an international border, and devise rules to maintain the current non-existent obstacles to business transactions are awaited. Our regional preferences need to be considered and well-articulated.

The range of serious issues, some difficult, must be tested by asking how will:

  • seamless cross-border commerce be protected?
  • common citizens' rights be assured, including freedom to live and work cross-border?
  • local holders of UK and Irish passports be treated?
  • health and social care arrangements be available cross-border?
  • access to education and higher education be facilitated?

There should be little objection if these services can be made available on an open and transparent basis across this island. It is less likely that the range of services would fully extend to Irish citizens in GB and vice versa.

Rather than invent a geo-political model, whether called special status or any other name, the UK and EC negotiators might use a tested piece of EC terminology: a protocol to the forthcoming Brexit treaty which specifies the common rights and privileges that people on this island can share, without making a controversial political deal.

Arrangements to keep cross-border trade frictionless will call for an agreement between the UK and EU (particularly with support from the Irish Government) not to introduce cross border tariffs and to retain agreed trading standards. The simplest principle would be to agree that trade in goods and services of Irish origin would be free of charges on entry to NI and vice versa for goods and services of origin in NI leaving NI to an Irish destination. There would be slightly uncomfortable concerns about 'back door leakages' which might be discounted on a de minimis basis.

The test would be whether those trading principles might be extended to some GB trade but that would be for later examination and might be solved if the UK gets a full trade deal with the EU. That opens the door to a wider series of questions about matters such as EU trading standards.

In turn, that leads into a possible UK-EU agreement on maintaining acceptable and fair trading competition arrangements. If there is a continuing agreement on competition policies then NI would benefit.

If not, then NI would be searching for new measures that step up the competition from NI for foreign direct investment (FDI) locating here. These are complex problems to be resolved.

With goodwill, and avoiding political sensitivities, solutions can be found. Critically, Northern Ireland opinion-formers must now lead the debate and closely monitor each detail of the Brexit negotiations.

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