No Executive means no focus for debate
Potential trading barriers following from Brexit are attracting high profile attention although, for the present, with little final agreement on how trade and commerce across the border in Ireland or across the UK-Ireland border should be managed.
If there is a shared will for a frictionless system, it is certainly possible. Technology, or special concessions, or an agreed treaty protocol could all offer easier relations than restoring a formal customs frontier.
While trading relations are high profile questions, carrying continuing regulatory publicity, there are numerous other aspects of Brexit where local consequences should begin to be anticipated and where the end agreement from the negotiations should be anticipated.
In this wider range of topics the absence of a NI Executive means that there is no local focus for debate.
In contrast, in Scotland the Scottish Government is raising its voice to try to secure a debate where, at least, the Scottish Government is assured a place round the table with the UK Government before further devolution decisions for the UK are made.
The Scottish representatives have asked London for participation in the immediate discussions on the future of policy for agriculture and fisheries. The Scottish starting point is that, with agreed budget allocations, farm and fisheries policies should be devolved to the Scottish Government. To date, the talks between the UK and the Scottish Governments have not found a shared agreement.
From a Northern Ireland perspective there has been little public awareness of these critical issues. Of course, farming and fishing are significant parts of the local economy.
Would the NI Executive wish to allow the decisions on policy and funding to be made in London or are there specific gains to be achieved for a degree of local flexibility and, if so, what degree of local flexibility?
After 2020 there is no agreement on what will replace, for farming, the Single Farm Payment formula which has recently served as a major large source of funds to all farms. Will the UK Government agree to maintain the present scale of farm support? Will the structure of farm support change? Two general trend answers seem likely.
First, the UK Government may wish to spend less on farm support. Second, the direction of support is likely to be less generic - evidence of farm development and sustainable environmental improvements are possible criteria to qualify.
Would a NI Executive wish, say, to have a farm support budget determined on principles akin to a Barnett formula in which the allocation to individual farms was set locally and not on a parity based system? The question raises the further prospect that even asking this question may provoke political disagreement. The possible budgetary implications of devolution for farming and then the distributional allocations are not likely to be easily managed. If the Scots win a devolution package, will NI go along with a Scottish precedent?
Fisheries policies pose serious devolution questions. They become even more complex when tested by the question of how relations with the Irish fisheries sector are to be managed.
Is the border, at sea, to be an administrative necessity and will this give rise to enforcement questions off the local coastline. In practical terms, if fisheries policy was devolved, would NI wish to reach a reciprocal fishing agreement with the Irish Government? Even less certain: would the EU allow Ireland to do a local deal in Irish coastal waters and would the UK Government devolve the NI part to the Executive?
The organisation and development of farming and fisheries will play a critical role in a large sector of the NI economy. The easy administrative answers would be to be ready to mirror the policies and funding of the UK Government as applied to GB. However, the case for some scope for devolutionary discretion is strong (as also for Scotland). That calls for a serious preparatory debate locally and then at a UK level.