Privately, officials warned DUP and SF ministers about Brexit

Officials in Stormont's lead department delivered a warning to ministers about the problems which leaving the EU could create for Northern Ireland '“ but the document was not made public ahead of the referendum, it has emerged.

Monday, 26th September 2016, 7:15 am
Updated Wednesday, 5th October 2016, 3:00 pm
Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness outside Stormont Castle

The report, which was compiled more than a year before the June 23 plebiscite, appears to have been the only serious study about the possibility of life outside the EU which was undertaken by Stormont Castle.

Tellingly, Stormont Castle appeared reluctant to release the document.

The 15-page analysis – which was undertaken by civil servants in the European Policy and Co-ordination Unit in the Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister (OFMdFM) – set out numerous ways in which officials feared that the Province’s economy and political structures could be detrimentally impacted by Brexit.

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OFMdFM – which has since been renamed as The Executive Office – was at the time under the control of Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness

The document has only now come to light after being released in response to a Freedom of Information request by investigative news website The Detail. Stormont Castle refused to respond to questions from The Detail.

However, Stephen Farry who in May 2015, when the document was produced, was an Alliance minister in the Executive, said that he had never seen it and that its contents were not discussed at Executive meetings. He told The Detail that the paper – entitled ‘Preliminary analysis on the impact of a UK referendum on its membership of the European Union’ – could have influenced the debate given its “clear analysis of the risks and consequences of Brexit from those charged with providing objective and impartial advice”.

OFMdFM – which has long been Stormont’s most closed department – had been asked for a copy of the report in February. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the file should have been disclosed within 20 working days unless a valid exemption could be cited. However, the document was withheld well past that time frame and only released to the unknown applicant on 24 June – the day after the referendum.

It was later released to The Detail in response to a separate FoI request.

As it happened, many of the points raised in the report became issues which were debated during the campaign anyway.
For instance, officials said: “The border with the RoI [Republic of Ireland] would become an external EU border, threatening to re-impose barriers dismantled over the last generation, including border posts, passport, visa and customs checks.” That fear was widely articulated by the Remain campaign in the weeks ahead of the vote.

Although the document recognised that the impact on Northern Ireland would be influenced by the terms negotiated for the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, it presented a gloomy picture of uncertainty, risk and economic problems in the event of a Brexit.

The document said that Northern Ireland was “a net beneficiary” from the EU, meaning that “the immediate financial impact to NI is likely to be negative”.

It went on: “Should the UK withdraw from the EU, and subject to the terms of withdrawal, we could lose access to: €862million in Structural Funds and European Social Fund over the period 2014-20; €2.5bn in Common Agricultural Policy funding (2014-2020); and loss of access to competitive EU funding which in the period 2011/12-2013/14 had amounted to £72.7million.”

Pro-Brexit campaigners have argued that this is money which the UK pays into Brussels in the first place, meaning that the Treasury will have much more money after Brexit.

The document said that “lack of subsidies would put NI farmers and related industries at a severe disadvantage to their RoI counterparts”, while the Province “might be less attractive” as a location for foreign investment and the case for cutting corporation tax could be “undermined”.

The document also highlights that Brexit could present the Republic of Ireland with “a potential binary choice between RoI’s nearest neighbour and its continental partners.”

And it said that “a strengthened British-Irish Council would allow RoI to remain a full and active member of the EU whilst maintaining strong test with its closest neighbours”