Ireland Brexit, Democracy, devolution and governance

A seat at the table? Where is the voice of Northern Irish government in Brexit


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Where is the voice of Northern Irish local government in the Brexit debate? Asks LGiU’s Janet Sillett. You’d have to look pretty hard to find it.

Despite a UK hung parliament and mixed messages coming from different UK Ministers, there have been significant developments on Brexit lately. The start of the negotiations of course, but also and importantly, the publication of the Repeal Bill (the EU (withdrawal) Bill).

All of this is hugely important to local government in Ireland and Northern Ireland. As we highlighted in our recent Brexit update, the Irish border issue is one of the most critical issues in the Brexit negotiations – with the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland the only land border between Britain and the European Union post Brexit. It could be argued that it will be Northern Ireland that potentially will feel the greatest impact from Brexit of any of the countries in the UK.

HMRC statistics show Northern Ireland’s economy is highly dependent on exports to the EU, with 52 per cent going to the European bloc including 38 per cent to Ireland.

How far will the UK government make concessions that could satisfy Northern Ireland, not to mention Ireland? Within the scope of the Single Market and/or Customs Union regulations, can there be a special dispensation for Northern Ireland in whole or part (and/or for Ireland within the EU)?

Brexit has huge significance for councils in Northern Ireland, and directly and indirectly for those in Ireland, given the current collaboration between them. It must be in the interests of local government across both jurisdictions for there to be a strong voice heard in the Brexit debates.

As in the rest of the UK, Northern Irish local government faces serious challenges – for local government as a whole and for individual councils.

A recent Ulster University Brexit Symposium discussion paper ‘Local Government in Northern Ireland and Brexit’ highlights that local stakeholders, particularly business communities and the community and voluntary sector, will look to councils for reassurance and guidance as (they) move through the Brexit process and that this may be particularly acute in relation to the two enhanced functions taken on board in 2015, community planning and economic development.

Local government in Northern Ireland, however, has an additional set of issues to those in England, Wales and Scotland. The border issue will impact on many aspects of local authorities work and roles. As the University of Ulster’s paper says:

‘Like the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland will be affected by the macro level economic impact of Brexit in terms of national economic growth, productivity, labour markets etc. However, by dint of its physical adjacency to the Irish Republic (and therefore the EU), there are a whole raft of other implications including the impact on cross-border travel to work, shopping and leisure patterns, together with others relating to the conduct of business which is frequently undertaken across an effectively ‘invisible’ border’.

Dr Aodh Quinlivan, director of the centre for local and regional governance at University College Cork, told a committee hearing at the House of Commons that Brexit could have a major impact on local government on the Island of Ireland. For example, currently, there is ongoing co-operation and collaboration between local authority executives in the Republic and North through the all-island forum, set up in 2002 to continue cross-Border co-operating dating back to co-operation Ireland linkages in the 1980s:

“The all-island forum encourages strategic, sustainable approaches to cross-Border co-operation between its members – some co-operation arrangements developed organically over the years – for example, Donegal County Council shares a cross-jurisdictional mobile library service with Derry”.

Could Brexit risk losing this kind of collaboration?

(extract from an article in The Irish Times).

There is concern that Brexit could lead to greater cross-community divisions in Northern Ireland. The UK House of Lords EU Committee says political stability in Northern Ireland must not be allowed to become what it describes as “collateral damage” of Brexit. RTE reports that the committee has warned that the British government needs to “raise its game” and make talks with the devolved administrations over Brexit more effective.

The report from the House of Lords EU Committee says that the Joint Ministerial Committee, set up to allow ministers from Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland to discuss the Brexit process, is not working efficiently, and that the general view was that this needs to change, with calls for more bilateral discussions ahead of meetings and greater transparency.

What about the voice of local government in the Brexit debate in both jurisdictions? Certainly in Scotland and England, you’d have to look pretty hard to find it. Andy Burnham, for example, the new mayor of Greater Manchester, speaking at the recent LGA conference, said that the English regions ‘haven’t been given any meaningful role’ in the Brexit negotiations’.

It isn’t as if local government across the UK and Ireland have not been actively engaged with the EU for many years – setting up offices, accessing funding, encouraging investment, and working with sub national government across the EU on best practice. So the sector has much to add to the discussions over Brexit. Individual and groups of councils will have their specific concerns about Brexit, but there are many issues that are shared among the majority of authorities. The uncertainty about EU citizens rights, for example, and especially the future of the EU nationals working in health and social care in the UK, the vast majority of whom are not British citizens. Could Ireland be an beneficiary in these instances given its pressing needs for more healthcare and social care professionals?

The UK Repeal Bill is going to be probably the most significant legislation for local government in the UK for decades. There must be concern about the ability of the UK parliament to properly scrutinise the bill, given some laws could be converted through secondary legislation which could be amended later without parliamentary consent. It will be even more difficult for local government, but it is clearly important that MPs understand the concerns of the sector and of individual councils or regional groups. From the point of view of local government in Ireland the concern that there is going to be an increasing gap in environmental and procurement standards with Northern Ireland will be of concern. Where will this leave the many Northern Irish companies, especially in construction, that are benefiting from contracts from Ireland worth probably far in excess of the infamous £1 Billion deal which has been signed off between the DUP and the Conservatives? Walk/drive around the major cities of Ireland and it is plain to see just how well Northern Irish contractors are doing. This will not last if they become excluded from the Irish construction market.

Brexit poses significant and difficult challenges for all councils on these islands. But there will be opportunities too. Many concerns have been expressed about the exposure of the Irish Food sector to the British market and this is true. Equally however, is that the Irish Food Sector will be best placed to displace British food exports to Mainland Europe so much of that impact may well be mitigated.

There’s work to do to ensure local government on both parts of the island get their fair share at the negotiating table. To make this happen a lot of work will be necessary over the immediate months ahead of us. Are local government bodies up to take this challenge?