For all my desire to keep the UK in the EU, it is at best a long shot and the relationship will never again from my point of view be ideal.
So, if it comes to it, what should the NI Executive be looking for out of “Brexit”? Just a thought on how what I have termed a “Special Access Agreement” for Northern Ireland with the EU may yet be played to our advantage.
What might such an Agreement entail?
- Maintenance in Northern Ireland for devolved issues of the European Communities Act, maintaining EU law in Northern Ireland so that investors know that trading standards, employee rights and environmental regulations are the same here as they are in the EU;
- Negotiation with EU of a Special Customs Arrangement, meaning that goods and services travelling between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are not subject to customs – customs posts would be at the ports and would apply only to goods travelling between Great Britain (or perhaps England/Wales if Scotland wished to try to negotiate the same) and the Republic of Ireland;
- Negotiation with the UK of maintenance of separate vehicle registration – vehicles registered in Northern Ireland would have to carry Northern Ireland plates regardless of original registration, and likewise in Great Britain, enabling recognition of Northern Ireland vehicles within the Special Customs Area (for example, they would be treated as EU vehicles at ports travelling between France and Ireland);
- Negotiation with EU to maintain all reciprocal Health Agreements – EU citizens would be entitled to Health Care in Northern Ireland, and residents of Northern Ireland registered with a GP in Northern Ireland would be entitled to the reciprocal arrangement (with the added confidence given by maintenance of EU Law);
- Negotiation with Ireland that all “people of Northern Ireland” are entitled to Irish citizenship (and passport) and that this specifically includes qualification not just by birth but also by residence (of reasonable length) in Northern Ireland;
- Negotiation with the UK that all VAT raised additionally in Northern Ireland be kept in Northern Ireland (this is similar to arrangements which exist in Germany), designed to encourage Northern Ireland’s Executive to encourage business because it will be in its interest to do so;
- Negotiation with the UK that corporation tax and all taxes devolved to Scotland also be devolved to Northern Ireland enabling corporation tax potentially to be set at zero (noting that, if the UK rate is 15%, the cost of doing this will be lower than the cost of setting it at 12.5% when this was originally proposed in 2010);
- Negotiation with the UK that any leftover funds not spent by NI departments should remain available for spending in NI the following year, giving an additional lever to save funds to enable reduction of taxes to increase attractiveness to investors and maximise the new arrangements; and
- Negotiation with the EU that Northern Ireland universities and colleges be considered to all intents and purposes EU institutions (including for funding and student exchange).
Of course, this is quite a wish list and it may be that the NI Executive would have to agree to contribute a sum to structural funds in order to achieve it (as well as paying for any gap in corporation tax as per existing agreements; these in fact had more to do with existing UK convention than EU law). However, by agreeing to maintain EU law as far as it can, noting that its citizens are entitled to EU citizenship, and noting that the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, there is a strong case to be made (with little disadvantage to the EU in showing good will and going along with it).
The essential point here is that Northern Ireland already is a special case by virtue of its people’s joint citizenship (as per the 1998 Agreement), the requirement to maintain certain laws by international treaty (such as the ECHR), and its geographical location with a land frontier to the Eurozone/EU. Such a “Special Access Agreement” would maintain the key advantages of EU membership, while also enabling the use of some fiscal tools which are not currently realistically available.
If it comes to it, let’s go for it!