Brexit focus obscuring significant NI economic problems, says top economist

Dr Esmond BirnieDr Esmond Birnie gave evidence to a Westminster committee this week
Dr Esmond BirnieDr Esmond Birnie gave evidence to a Westminster committee this week
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A leading economist has said the focus on the impact of Brexit on the future prosperity of Northern Ireland has “obscured” more significant economic problems faced by the Province.

Dr Esmond Birnie, senior economist at Ulster University, made those comments in an interview with the News Letter after giving evidence to MPs at Westminster on Tuesday.

Dr Birnie said the overwhelming attention to the impact of Brexit meant more “crucial, usually long determinants” of Northern Ireland’s economic performance were being overlooked.

“We had a lot of economic and social problems prior to June 2016 (when the Brexit referendum was held),” Dr Birnie said.

“The world didn’t come into being at that point and it isn’t as if, had the vote gone the other way, we would be a society without economic and social problems.

“In fact, I would argue some of those problems – notably low productivity, that is output per worker, leading to low economic competitiveness – have been a problem for decades. I think it’s regrettable that, in a sense, so much attention has been focused on this one issue as though it is the key determinant in what is going to happen.”

He continued: “It (Brexit) is important, whatever view you take, but whatever happens in the next weeks, months and years ahead, we will still face those same problems.”

Asked whether Brexit might have an impact on those problems, Dr Birnie said: “I think it’s ambivalent or could go either way. It poses a challenge so therefore it depends how we respond.

“The conventional wisdom is that this will be terrible, that businesses will export less and we will have less output, fewer jobs and everything will be depressed. Of course that could happen but people are assuming we are going to stay within the current range of business markets.”

He pointed to New Zealand’s response to the UK joining the European Common Market in the 1970s as a possible example of how Northern Ireland might respond.

“When the UK joined the Common Market, they saw that as an economic disaster for New Zealand because they were heavily dependent on selling agri-food products to the UK,” he explained.

“But they did adapt. They’ve reoriented their trade structure to sell to the USA, to Canada, and to east Asia.

“I’m not saying it was easy. It took time, but the point is they responded to the challenge.”