Northern Ireland 7th September 2016

NI Open Government Network Blog – What does Brexit mean for Northern Ireland?

by Connor McLean

Written by David McBurney and Colm Burns

On Thursday 23 June this year a referendum was held to decide whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union. More than 30 million people voted. The Leave Campaign won by the relatively narrow margin of 52% to 48%.

The term ‘Brexit’ – that merges the words Britain and exit – has become used as a shorthand way of referring to the UK leaving the EU. But it remains unclear what ‘Brexit’ will actually mean in practice,  if or when it happens. Even the most prominent Brexiteers who campaigned to leave, can’t agree on the detail, or frame a common vision for a UK outside the European Union.

So what does Brexit mean for Northern Ireland? Once again, nobody really knows, least of all the politicians here. According to NI Finance Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, our local representatives have been excluded from the crucial planning process currently taking place in London. And, as no one expected the Leave Campaign to prevail in the Referendum, there is no contingency plan for Brexit – no Plan B.

In Northern Ireland 56% of people voted to remain in the EU. Of the main political parties – Sinn Fein, UUP, Alliance, SDLP and DUP – only the latter campaigned to leave.

Now the result of the Referendum is in, politicians have begun to jostle for advantage as they assess what the coming split will mean – for the Northern Ireland economy, for the border that separates the north and south of the Island and for relations between London, Belfast, Dublin and Brussels.

Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and a leader of Sinn Fein in the North, is concerned that any return to border checkpoints would: “represent a grievous undermining of the Good Friday Agreement”. He described Brexit as “a disaster for Ireland”.

Arlene Foster, First Minister and Leader of the DUP insists that border and trade issues will be solved, the UK will thrive outside the EU, the demands of Scottish nationalism will abate and everything will be fine.

However, in a recent letter to British PM, Teresa May, the First and Deputy First Ministers were united in the view that Northern Ireland’s geographically isolated economy is critically dependent on access to EU markets and EU labour and in their insistence that Brexit must not become “an impediment to the movement of people, goods and services”.

The two leaders also pointed out that EU funds have been important to the economy and the peace process and stressed that the agricultural sector is “uniquely vulnerable both to the loss of EU funding and to potential tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade”.

Northern Ireland is unique because it is the only part of the UK with a land border shared with an EU member state and our economic, political and cultural lives are intertwined with those in the Republic of Ireland.

Nearly 200 formal roads cross the border; and there are many more tractor trails and foot paths. At present, passports are not needed to travel between the two countries, and checkpoints are limited. However, as the 310-mile border will be the UK’s sole land frontier with the EU, immigration and customs controls might have to be imposed to prevent EU nationals  from entering the UK through the back door. This could reduce social cohesion between the North and the Republic, limit trade and infringe on the Good Friday Agreement.

In the upcoming negotiations with the EU, the British Government must weigh the priority of preserving the union against the prerogatives of Brexit and take into account the potential impact on the British-Irish relationship. Ireland’s economy is quite heavily dependent on the UK; and trade between the two countries is worth more than €1bn a week.

There are, of course, those who refuse to accept that the Referendum result marks the end of debate on EU membership. There’s talk of vetoes, court cases and a second referendum. Some insist that the decision to leave the EU must be ratified by all four parliaments. Some have threatened to take the issue to court arguing that any move to detach Northern Ireland from the EU would violate the elaborate equality legislation that underpins Northern Ireland’s peace. Others insist there should be a second referendum when people know what the Brexit deal looks like and can make a more informed decision.

So, not only do we not know what Brexit will look like, we’re not even sure that the UK will actually leave the EU, or whether Scotland and Northern Ireland will leave in the same manner as England and Wales.

What does all this uncertainty mean for the movement for more open government in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK? What did the Referendum reveal about the state of democracy?

The Northern Ireland Open Government Network has been working with government officials to co-design commitments on themes including: open data, access to information, anti-corruption, technology and innovation, public accountability and civic participation. The intention was for the NI Executive to endorse these commitments for inclusion in the UK National Action Plan. But right now, following the understandable distractions of local elections and the Referendum itself, Brexit seems to be the only topic in town.

Frustrations with government delays in signing off the commitments is growing. And that’s why, for the OGP Summit in Paris, we have proposed a workshop on ‘Rules of Engagement’. If accepted, this session will look at international examples of collaboration, explore effective methods of co-design and deliberation and set some ground rules for engagement between citizens and government.

From a wider perspective, the vote to leave the EU came as a shock. A crisis and a disaster for many, Brexit has changed the political landscape. Early casualties of the Leave Vote have included not only the three Brexiteers – Johnson, Gove and Farage – but also George Osborne’s dogmatic programme of austerity. There are high hopes that, unshackled from the EU, the people of the UK will ‘take back control’ of both their sovereignty and their destiny. But it would take a serious suspension of disbelief to have faith in the future.

Because what the Referendum most starkly revealed was people’s loss of trust in experts, officialdom and the political class. And what we witnessed during the campaign were two sides that were prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to win the Democracy Game.

Before the Campaign, people were ignored by the major parties. During the Campaign, they were patronised, cajoled and threatened. Both sides stepped up the fear rhetoric. Remain talked about recession, taxes, pensions and unemployment. Leave did immigrants, house prices and terrorism. But ultimately, the Referendum was won by persuading the English working class that they were voting to stop immigration and support the NHS by cutting funding to hordes of Brussels bureaucrats.

Rather than transparency, accountability and deliberative civic engagement, we got slogans, propaganda and patronising end-of-the-world nonsense. Truth was drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Briefly promoted from spectator to active participant –  for just long enough to put their X in a box – a much more divided and cynical citizenry looks on once more to see what happens next.