Article in Belfast News Letter last Friday.
Various recent reports and comments, in sources as wide ranging as the UK broadsheets to leading consultancy reports, have resulted in the suggestion that Northern Ireland will be the “hardest hit” region of the UK after Brexit.
I continue to take the view that Brexit will indeed be a bad thing for Northern Ireland, the UK and the EU. However, I would add only that Northern Ireland will be the “most affected” region – whether it is the “hardest hit” is another matter. If Northern Ireland were to play its hand well, “most affected” could come to mean “most advantaged”.
The assumption is that Northern Ireland will suffer because of its reliance on EU funds – notably for agriculture, voluntary programmes and infrastructure. This will be the case only if we assume a reliance on endless subsidies is a good thing. It is not!
As long ago as 1999, one year after the Agreement, the then Department of Enterprise published a strategy named “Strategy 2010”, aimed among other things at moving GDP per head in Northern Ireland from 80% of the UK average to 90%. Six years after the target date and 17 after the report, the figure has in fact declined to 75%.
Incredibly, Northern Ireland was in fact more economically productive at the very end of the Troubles compared to the rest of the UK than it is nearly a generation on from the ceasefires! In other words, our reliance on subsidies (essentially, on money earned and wealth created elsewhere) has become even more pronounced, not less so.
Advocates of “Brexit” in Northern Ireland continue to argue that “we” give the EU £7 billion more per annum than “we” receive. Yet Great Britain’s subsidy to Northern Ireland alone is even more than that! Northern Ireland’s “economic” debate has thus declined into an argument about where we can get the greatest subsidy! Have we no self-respect?
If the current instability should be used for any purpose, it should be for a fundamental recognition that reliance on endless subsidies, regardless of their amounts or their sources, is not sustainable and cannot continue into the next decade.
Instead, the NI Executive should be formulating a serious plan to create and generate its own wealth – using new-found tax powers if needs be.
This would include proposals such as a Manufacturing Strategy, creating opportunities for significantly greater investment in infrastructure, and investing in targeted skills, as well as potentially maintaining free movement of labour.
However, there are also other ways of making a contribution. Northern Ireland could, for example, set up a Peace Studies Centre for use by the EU, a proposal which already has broad all-party support. It could ensure its world-class medical research is shared with the EU in return for access to EU research and data. It could adopt a “Gateway” status to attract investors by ensuring European employment regulations and trading standards are maintained but offering unique and tailored tax incentives.
Therefore, a fundamental change in culture and strategy is needed. We must be more ambitious. We need to ask not where Northern Ireland can manage to find funding to tread water, but rather where it can contribute to make significant gains in return for everyone – in terms of jobs, health and skills.
“Brexit” deals Northern Ireland a bad hand.However, play it well to deliver the changes we should long ago have been making anyway, and not all is lost.