While the Tories get tied in Brexit knots, the clock is ticking on the Northern Ireland question
02 May 2018
As part of a delegation of Labour MEPs, I travelled to Northern Ireland last week to at the invitation of the SDLP, Labour’s sister party, to discuss the substantial challenges Brexit presents for Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. From trade, supply chains, agricultural production, education and healthcare, the issues are truly immense. And what is really clear, is that there can be no hard border without severe damage to the Northern Irish economy, the peace process and decades of cross-border work.
Businesses operations are integrated both sides of the border
Many companies North and South of the border have interconnected supply chains covering the island of Ireland and often involving movements across the border throughout the manufacturing process. The food and agriculture sectors would be particularly impacted: food, beverages and tobacco account for 49 % of cross-border manufacturing trade, while a 25% of all milk produced on Northern Ireland’s farms is exported for processing in Ireland. Almac, a manufacturing firm that provides worldwide-integrated services in pharmaceutical and biotech sectors, makes 80,000 border crossings in a year.
And the border between North and South is not a straight line. There are 208 border crossings between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland - Derry alone has 33 crossings. This compares with 137 border crossings between the EU and the bordering countries to the east of the EU. The cost of the paperwork alone from dealing with that many border crossings would put many companies out of business.
Turning the clock back on the peace process
During the visit, we went to a former security checkpoint at Forkhill in Newry. Right on the border with the Republic, this former army checkpoint is now a housing development with a nearby community centre. What many communities living close the border fear is a possible return to high levels of surveillance that was experienced prior to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). We were told that 20 years ago there was 1 British soldier patrolling the streets for every 3 people living in the area. Most roads crossing the border were closed and the whole area economically blighted. Now investment has returned and people move freely in the area.
The clock is ticking
This Monday Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator, visited Northern Ireland again and made it clear: there can be no UK exit agreement without a solution to the Northern Ireland border issue. A “backstop” proposal has already been outlined in the draft Brexit agreement which would essentially keep Northern Ireland in a regulatory common area with the Republic of Ireland. But this solution has met resistance, not least from the DUP.
As the Cabinet meets for its crunch meeting today to hammer out a position on the Customs Union, Northern Ireland will loom large. The target date for an agreement is the June European Council and a final overall agreement in October. The clock is ticking. Common sense says that staying in the EU Customs Union is by far the best way to avoid problems at the Irish border and protect the gains of the GFA. That’s what Labour supports. It’s about time Theresa May acted in the best interests of the country and faces down the hard-line Brexiters in her party.
Picutres of Labour MEPs with Claire Hanna MLA, Nicola Mallon MLA, Kevin Hanratty HRC, Owen Reidy, Glynn Roberts, Colin Neill, Stephen Kelly
Labour MEPs with Members of Dundalk and Newry Chambers of Commerce, NFU, SDLP MLAs and staff from HorseFirst
Labour MEPs with Border Communities Against Brexit, Claire Hanna MLA, Sinéad Bradley MLA