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Steve Aiken (Liam McBurney/PA Wire)

Huge Brexit errors were made, with implications for the Belfast Agreement and the Union

Steve Aiken


A man waves Union flags from a small car as he drives
past Brexit supporters in Parliament Square

A man waves Union flags from a small car as he drives past Brexit supporters in Parliament Square

AFP via Getty Images

A man waves Union flags from a small car as he drives past Brexit supporters in Parliament Square

After the democratic decision of the people of the United Kingdom to leave the EU, many will have welcomed 11pm on January 31, 2020 as a historic moment in the history of the United Kingdom as it departs.

However, many will also look on with trepidation at a withdrawal deal which effectively puts a border in the Irish Sea and sets Northern Ireland on a different direction of travel from the rest of the UK.

I do not believe for one moment that many who voted for Brexit endorsed this as the outcome, which is a threat to the constitutional and economic position of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom.

Comments from Prime Minister Boris Johnson MP and Secretary of State Julian Smith MP claiming that Northern Ireland will have unfettered access to our biggest market in Great Britain run in direct contradiction to the content of the withdrawal agreement.

Both can't be right and the people of Northern Ireland, its business organisations and politicians, deserve absolute clarity rather than easy clichés.

As things stand, on Friday January 1, 2021, Northern Ireland will be in the unique position of having to enforce the EU's customs code at our ports and airports whilst in law having left the EU customs union.

Technically, we will be remaining within our nation's customs territory, while at the same time having access to the EU's single market by being, in all but name, a part of that market - with all the contradictions and complications that this implies.

In less than 11 months we have to establish mechanisms, structures, legislation, training, education and a whole raft of other measures to make sure our economy doesn't suffer, or even worse, implode.

Huge strategic errors were made throughout the negotiations that led to the final withdrawal agreement and now we need to focus on putting them right or at least mitigating its worst constitutional and economic impacts.

The implications of this for the Belfast Agreement and the Union itself are unsettling, disrupting potential investment and also the growth of our economy.

Bearing in mind the short timelines, coupled with previous political and governance failures in the implementation of the renewable heating scheme, the lack of a dedicated minister, government committee or even Assembly oversight, is nothing short of a complete abrogation of responsibility and accountability.

The need to take action now and the absence of any outward signs of activity or even recognition of the problem, is again sending out the wrong signal and message about the future.

The opportunity should be seized to make this a transformational turning point to mitigate the worst aspects of the withdrawal agreement. We need to take this chance to boost and reinvigorate our economy.

Only a joined-up and co-ordinated approach from Northern Ireland will deliver.

We now have the opportunity to build a proper partnership - between the political parties, industry, business, civil society and academia - that can shape the future for Northern Ireland.

There must be no more 'business as usual' from our political and business leadership.

The choice may be stark for some, but for those of us who believe in the Union, grasping the new reality and accepting the challenge must be the way ahead.

No matter what, leadership, so far sadly lacking, is urgently required and the decisions that are needed must be made now - time has run out.

  • Steve Aiken is UUP leader
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