Brexit 'must not be used as catch-all excuse for future economic failings' in Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland must avoid using Brexit as a "single transferable excuse" for future economic failings, it's been claimed. Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to trigger Article 50 at the end of this month in order to begin the process of leaving the EU.
Dr Esmond Birnie, senior economist at the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre, said Brexit would make itself felt most acutely in Northern Ireland in the cessation of funding, and from a lack of workers from EU countries for sectors including agri-food and hospitality.
But he said we must avoid using Brexit as an excuse for more deep-seated economic failings - particularly its low rate of productivity.
"Northern Ireland faces many policy challenges which have little to do with Brexit - though, of course, it is possible that Brexit could be one factor which will sometimes make improvements harder to realise.
"One of the biggest economic challenges facing Northern Ireland long predates this Brexit process.
"According to how one measures it, Northern Ireland has had a relatively low productivity level throughout the last 30 years, perhaps even the last 50 or 100 years."
But he added: "Perhaps the greatest economic threat from Brexit is an indirect one - the extent to which Brexit could be used as a cover-all explanation for any deficiency in economic policy and performance after 2019; Brexit as the single transferable excuse for both Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive."
He said the process of negotiation, followed by the realities of being outside the EU, would have detrimental effects - and bring opportunities.
"Most people do not like change. They prefer the status quo. This means we will hear much more during the next two years from those businesses and individuals who lose markets or find their activities disrupted than from those which exploit any Brexit opportunities."
Northern Ireland would also lose out on around £500m of annual EU support. But he said the loss of such funding, in particular around £350m in subsidies for farming, could present an opportunity to redesign policies for supporting the sector.
He added: "A lower supply of cheap migrant labour might push the Northern Ireland business and education sectors to engage much more with the very considerable reserve army of the economically inactive within Northern Ireland."