Analysis: Brexit document throws up different, but equally tricky, questions for DUP and SF

The document published today raises very different '“ but equally awkward '“ questions for the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Tuesday, 27th September 2016, 7:01 am
Updated Wednesday, 5th October 2016, 2:07 pm

While it would be stretching things to claim that this document is in any meaningful sense a contingency plan, it appears to be the closest which Stormont’s top department ever came to seriously considering the possibility that the UK would vote to leave the EU.

The fact that it only did so once – and that more than a year before the referendum – is in itself fairly extraordinary.

But the fact that Stormont Castle had done some work on this issue makes it hard to understand why – when in the weeks after June 23 the Executive faced searing criticism for having no contingency plan – it did not at least hint at the existence of this piece of work.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

As it was, the Executive gave the impression that it had barely even thought about the possibility that the desired outcome of its main party, the DUP, could actually happen.

For the DUP - which has attempted to strike a positive tone as it sets out the new possibilities outside of the EU - there was, it could be argued, a particular onus to explore those possible benefits using the governmental resources at its disposal.

This document alone is not equivalent to the contingency plan of the Republic’s Government, nor is it anywhere near as useful as the detailed inquiries by several Westminster committees ahead of the referendum, examining various implications of a Brexit vote

But it is something – and until now Stormont has offered almost no defence of its pre-Brexit lack of planning.

Perhaps the answer as to why this report was buried lies in the fact that it raises awkward questions for both parties in Stormont Castle.

Sinn Fein has faced accusations from both the SDLP and members of both the Leave and Remain campaigns that it was half-hearted about campaigning for a Remain vote - despite sounding apoplectic about the outcome ever since. Certainly, it seems extraordinary that a party which said it was determined to secure a Remain vote had been sitting on a document which would surely have been useful in persuading the many undecided voters that they should vote Remain.

And for the DUP, it is unquestionably the case that Arlene Foster would have faced tricky questions both before and after the referendum had it been known that her own officials had produced a document which suggested Brexit would have a distinctly negative impact on the Province.

Of course, many of the gloomy pre-Referendum warnings have - thus far - proven incorrect. So it should not necessarily be taken that just because this document sets out an overwhelmingly negative view of life outside the EU, that such a view is accurate.

Throughout the document, the officials repeatedly make clear the level of uncertainty involved (and it is that uncertainty which in many cases appears to persuade them that Brexit will be negative) and that they are giving their best guess based on very incomplete information.

Nevertheless, this document reinforces the scale of the potholes on the road ahead.

Parties which hitherto been pushing in opposite directions on this issue will have to find common ground on which they can agree – or cede to London complete influence over decisions in which they could be involved.