Trade expert: Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal has benefits for the firms and people of Northern Ireland but also for the cause of unionism itself

The Withdrawal Agreement contains provisions that at first blush certainly do appear to put separation between aspects of life in Northern Ireland and in Great Britain.

Friday, 15th November 2019, 5:00 pm
With Northern Ireland in UK customs territory, albeit operating some EU customs rules, the UK free port agenda should be deployed especially in areas such as Lough Foyle facing UK-EU markets

The anger that some feel about the deal is palpable, and one does not have to be in Northern Ireland to feel it. But is the deal really all bad for the cause of unionism?

I would like to very respectively put the case that whatever else is in the deal, there are benefits for the firms and people of Northern Ireland, but also, ironically for the cause of unionism itself.

The fact that Great Britain has regulatory flexibility and Northern Ireland may not is a significant difference from the May deal where both were locked into the EU system.

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Shanker Singham, a trade expert, is chairman of the Technical Panel, Alternative Arrangements Commission

Under that old deal, the UK would not have had any trade policy, and there would have been no benefits to Brexit.

How can the UK ensure that NI benefits from its policies going forward?

First, by ensuring we do have that forward looking trade policy that will give firms in Northern Ireland material advantages.

The differences between NI and GB would be too high a price to pay if Northern Irish people did not fully participate in these benefits, and that these benefits be significant.

If we can secure significant benefits from the US, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and CPTPP accession deals, then it is crucial that people in Northern Ireland see these benefits immediately.

If they are more significant than those enjoyed by people in Ireland, we will have given concrete economic reasons for everyone in NI to stay in the UK, and strengthened the cause of unionism not weakened it. But if those benefits are too slight, then we will have imposed a difference between our people for no great cause, and unionists would rightly find those differences intolerable.

Second, we must do everything in our power to ensure that any differences in the GB-NI trade channel is minimised and made as least disruptive as possible.

To that end, we have recommended a series of concrete actions which the UK government can and must do to reassure unionists, many of which are set out in our detailed Alternative Arrangements Commission report (see for a full library of proposals).

Trusted traders, the use of transit, making more checks in-premises as opposed to at a particular point can all be used to reduce the border between GB and NI to a series of transactions as opposed to a line on a map.

I believe that there is scope for these improvements to the customs parts of the arrangements, based on our estimation of the EU and the Irish ability to support them.

The Irish, who are also concerned about barriers to East West trade, will now have to push hard for an FTA between the UK and the EU.

They will need to see many of these simplifications in place as soon as possible for East West trade.

Third, there needs to be a new deal for Northern Ireland which includes helping the region take full advantage of the rather unique status it will have.

Under the Protocol, NI will become an export platform for both GB and EU markets.

Through its membership of the UK customs union, it will also be an export platform into all those countries with which the UK has trade deals, which will include all the EU deals but will additionally include a range of other countries, including the US, Australia, New Zealand, the CPTPP countries, and a more liberalising relationship with Japan.

Northern Ireland will obtain these benefits without having to make concessions in their own territory, and while enjoying a measure of protection that other GB producers will not enjoy.

It is likely that these opportunities will lead to more foreign investment in Northern Ireland, increasing land values, and more economic activity.

Even Irish firms may well relocate to take advantage of this platform. Since NI is in the UK’s customs territory, albeit operating some EU customs rules, the UK free port agenda should be fully deployed in Northern Ireland, especially in unique areas such as Lough Foyle which can face both the UK and EU markets.

Fourth, the principle of cross-community consent to any arrangements affecting Northern Ireland should continue to apply.

No single community should be able to veto future arrangements.

These matters can be agreed by the UK and EU during the implementation period and should all be included in the NI Protocol in the ultimate Free Trade Agreement which can be different from the current NI Protocol.

Any additional treaty could also be lodged at the United Nations to give it additional force.

I know that this agreement has troubled the heart of unionism. The UK has made concessions, of that there is no doubt. But the EU has also.

It has delegated the protection of its own single market and customs union to a non-member, something it has never done before (and doubtless will not do again).

We need to now use the time until the end of the transition period to agree sensible, workable arrangements that can make the lived experience of traders in NI as little changed as possible, East-West and North-South, while delivering for the people of Northern Ireland the concrete benefits of the UK’s trade policy.

The best guarantor of the Union is success.

The onus is now on the UK government to ensure that Northern Ireland makes the most of its position to be as economically successful as possible.

• Shanker Singham, a trade expert, is chairman of the Technical Panel, Alternative Arrangements Commission