The News Letter has rightly led the way on demanding devolved institutions in Northern Ireland prepare themselves for a changed future in the light of last month’s referendum on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.
It is absolutely correct to say that this is no time for our Executive Ministers and public servants to be treating themselves to a two-month holiday.
Having evidently failed, disgracefully, to come up with any contingency for a Leave victory, despite the fact one of the Executive parties was advocating one, sacrifices will have to be made so that the business of government can proceed smoothly from September.
Firstly, as the News Letter has rightly suggested, Committees should be continuing to meet - even if by allowing deputation of members by party colleagues in some cases. These meetings should have the specific initial objective of assessing exactly what the exposure is of each Department to the European Union. Are there funds, information streams, knowledge exchanges which are endangered by leaving?
Once this work is done (and there is no reason it should not be by early August), the Executive should then assess which aspects of our relationship with the EU are essential, and which can be replaced.
This will then determine the position the Executive takes in advocating for Northern Ireland when the UK/EU negotiations take place. How important is it to our young people’s futures that our further education institutions (and students) are treated as if they were in the EU; to our small businesses trading across the border that we remain within the Customs Union; to our exporters that we remain within the Single Market? What exactly do we need to do to maintain access to European Clinical Trials, pan-European medical research and interventions for rare conditions?
What do we propose to do about the European Arrest Warrant, access to shared intelligence and hot pursuit protocols which will keep us safe from international crime and terrorism? Is there even a case for Northern Ireland-only work visas, EU customs access or reciprocal health care arrangements?
Having established what aspects of EU membership are vital to Northern Ireland’s future, we can then pursue our case. We may be able to make common cause with Scotland, or even Gibraltar or London, on many of these issues. We should almost certainly be arguing for a UK Constitutional Convention and an all-island Civic Forum to help this work and ensure compromise in key areas.
The Executive Office in Brussels should long ago have been building bridges with other European regions in similar positions to add to pressure across the EU for a “Special Access Arrangement” for Northern Ireland, given its unique constitutional status and geographical location. We also need to consider implications for corporation tax, infrastructure investment and skills development - but this must be done as part of an overall strategy, not in isolation.
The issues, for households, businesses and service deliverers across Northern Ireland, are far too important to be ignored for two months. Contingency plans must be put in place now, and delivered upon immediately in September.
Ian James Parsley, Newtownabbey