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Brexit could have damaging effect on trade with south

Two experts on how June's poll may have contrasting effects on economies on either side of the border

By Dan O'Brien

Despite sectarian division and the ever-present ghosts of the past in Northern politics, the latest election campaign gave some tentative signs of normalisation, in that bread-and-butter issues - taxes and public services - featured strongly and the economy took centre stage in the parties' election manifestos.

All committed themselves to lower corporation tax, help for businesses and the creation of tens of thousands of jobs.

However, and as eminent economist and commentator John Simpson has noted, political debate has tended to lack detail - none of the parties offered a fully costed budget or explained how the slated (and much-vaunted) cut in corporation tax will be funded.

Being aspirational rather than specific is, of course, not unique to the north's political parties - and they can get away with it more easily because the bulk of fiscal and tax powers remain with London.

Stormont's weakness is compounded by the large fiscal transfers it requires from Her Majesty's Treasury. Officially, Northern Ireland's net fiscal deficit in 2013-14 was £9.3bn, or around €12bn, depending on the exchange rate. That is equivalent to an eye-popping 25% of estimated GDP.

Put another way, if Northern Ireland were an independent state, its yearly deficit would be more than eight times the EU ceiling on such imbalances - making Greece look like a model of fiscal rectitude in comparison.

The next Executive is almost certain to face tough budgetary decisions. UK chancellor George Osborne is determined to cut the 'block grant', and the lowering of the corporation tax rate will result in another loss of revenue. Tighter budgetary constraints are bound to cause tension within the new Executive.

Sinn Fein will not want to introduce unpopular measures, lest it allows the hard left to make hay. The redistributionist-minded SDLP and even the austere Ulster Unionists may well oppose spending cuts if they decide to opt out of government and go into opposition.

Stormont's budgetary wrangling with Westminster is a symptom of a weak real economy. There is a broad recognition that the Northern Ireland economy is under-performing when compared to most other regions on these islands.

Northern Ireland has the second-lowest GDP per capita, with only the Welsh faring worse. Since 2007, it has been below the EU average.

Nor is this all down to the Troubles.

Under-performance was in evidence well before violence erupted in the late 1960s - in part because Northern Ireland's economy has many of the weaknesses of other ex-industrial and peripheral regions in Britain and the rest of Europe.

That has meant an over-reliance on the state. The Northern Irish public sector is very large, accounting for 28% of employment, according to Britain's statistics agency (a more normal level in European countries is a third less, at around 20%).

There are other problems, too. Energy costs, business rates and lagging productivity have all been identified as barriers to growth. It has long been recognised across the political spectrum that Northern Ireland needs a stronger private sector.

Stormont's economic plans are centred on following the Republic's success in attracting foreign investment, with the corporation tax set to fall towards the rate that has long prevailed in the Republic. Stormont is to gain control of corporation tax in April 2018, and a rate of 12.5% is expected.

If the political parties can get their act together, it is possible that further fiscal and tax powers will be on offer over the course of the new Assembly term.

But in the much nearer term, Northern Ireland faces a big risk. Next month, voters will be returning to the polls for the UK referendum on its membership of the EU. The political consensus is for staying. Of the five main parties, only the long-time Eurosceptic DUP will campaign to leave. Opinion polls suggest that Ulster will vote to remain in the EU - though a majority of unionists may decide to 'leave'.

Certainly, the north has benefited from generous EU funding in the form of agricultural subsidies, regional funds and peace initiatives.

From 2007-13 it totalled £2.5bn, most of which went to farmers. Whether a post-Brexit British government would be prepared to replace this funding in full is far from certain.

The border is another big consideration. A Brexit would bring in new barriers to cross-border commerce. There is even the possibility that checkpoints and customs posts would be re-erected.

That would be good for no one.

Cross-border trade has been declining as a share of the Republic's total trade.

North-south trade is much more important to Northern Ireland than to the Republic.

Britain outside the EU would almost certainly have a trade-destroying effect - and the damage to Northern Ireland in particular could be considerable.

And as if the economic complications were not enough to be worrying about, there are much greater dangers.

The Scottish nationalist government has said that it would seek to break away from Britain if Brexit happens.

It is not hard to see a crumbling UK causing alarm among Northern Ireland's unionists. Little Englanders might advocate ditching the peripheral nations, which some see as subsidy junkies.

Irredentists on this island would see an opportunity, too. In a society where insecurities are deep and strong, and in which paramilitarism is alive and thriving, it is all too easy to see an abyss opening up.

Belfast Telegraph