Almost two weeks after the Brexit decision, a chronically unprepared Stormont still gives the impression of being caught in the headlights by the shock vote to leave the EU.
Unlike the Republic’s government, which had a contingency plan, the Leave/Remain split between the DUP and Sinn Fein at the top of the Northern Ireland Executive prevented any serious planning for a scenario which one half of Stormont longed for and the other half dreaded.
Since the referendum, the Assembly has held a debate on the issue and the Executive has asked the head of the civil service to create teams in each department to consider the implications of Brexit. But the Executive and Assembly are very much playing catch-up with both Dublin and London which had done more pre-referendum planning.
Despite the opposition of the nationalist parties, the UK decision has been taken and Northern Ireland’s political leaders need to rise to a challenge which will likely define their political careers and, more importantly, determine Northern Ireland’s medium-term future.
So what practical steps can Stormont now take to prepare for the moment when the UK leaves the EU?
1) Find common cause
Stormont will not negotiate the UK’s terms of exit from the EU, but the Government has made clear that it wants to involve the devolved regions in the process. In order to have their say with those who will negotiate, our political leaders need to be clear as to what they want. There will be areas on which unionists and nationalists disagree - such as the location of passport control. But there are many areas on which they have common cause and could present a united view, something which would carry additional weight.
2) Committee inquiries
The Assembly’s committee system could quickly - within weeks - instigate inquiries into how Brexit is likely to impact across Northern Ireland society. Westminster’s committee system is far ahead of Stormont on this front, with a series of House of Commons and House of Lords reports into what Brexit may mean (including one from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee). Inquiries into the future of agricultural subsidies and regulation, cross-border travel, university research funding, etc, could all be instigated, calling witnesses and giving voice to those most affected by the looming change.
3) A Brexit committee
Most Assembly committees scrutinise the work of a specific department. But the Northern Ireland Act allows for the creation of ‘ad hoc committees’ to carry out specific tasks on a cross-party basis. Such a committee could be set up to examine the wider implications, challenges and opportunities of Brexit. It could involve both Executive and Opposition parties and examine other jurisdictions - both countries bordering the EU and other global arrangements.
4) Brexit minister(s)
Prime Ministerial hopeful Theresa May has pledged to appoint a Brexit minister to the Cabinet. While there is less need for such a role in a devolved administration as Stormont is unlikely to be directly negotiating with Brussels, creating a distinct role would allow an individual – or at Stormont, a joint DUP-Sinn Fein role – to completely focus on this issue and co-ordinate the Executive’s strategy. The two junior ministers (who often seem to have little role in the current system) could perhaps perform such a task.
5) North-South cooperation
Unionists have long been hostile to north-south bodies which diminish UK sovereignty in Northern Ireland. But the practical implications of Brexit for the island of Ireland mean that there will have to be closer north-south cooperation than ever before on a pragmatic basis. While Arlene Foster dismissed the SDLP/Sinn Fein/Irish government idea of an all-Ireland Brexit Forum, she was clear to stress that she was doing so because she believes that there are already mechanisms in place for such discussions. It could be that the North-South Ministerial Council – long viewed on both sides of the border as something of a fig leaf for northern nationalism, with little real purpose – finally finds a significant role for itself.
6) The border
The major area in which north-south cooperation will be crucial is in shaping the future of the border. Unionists and nationalists, as well as the current British and Irish governments, share considerable common ground on keeping the border as low-key as possible. But they face two potential problems: Brussels could insist on firm border checks or a new Prime Minister could decide to harden the border to control migration. If Stormont and Dublin can agree a joint position on the border, it will strengthen their hand in negotiations. If there is no passport control at the actual border, there is the possibility of passport control being moved to Cairnryan – as suggested by David Cameron during the campaign – meaning that Northern Ireland citizens would have to show a passport to move within their own country.
7) Corporation tax
The Executive urgently needs to make its mind up on whether it will cut corporation tax to 12.5 per cent in April 2018, as planned. The mixed messages from Sinn Fein, coupled with the uncertainty created by the Brexit vote and now George Osborne’s plan to cut UK corporation tax to less than 15 per cent have undermined what was being presented to potential investors as a done deal. If a decision is taken not to cut corporation tax, there will be around £250 million which can be spent elsewhere. There is the possibility (though it would depend on whether the UK wanted to be in the EU Single Market) of Invest NI using the money to instead effectively pay foreign investors to set up in Northern Ireland as it has done until now but which was to be outlawed by the EU. However, such a move would be far less dramatic or effective.
As well as threats, there are opportunities from Brexit. The Executive could now seek to expand its network of foreign offices to market Northern Ireland products and services to a wider non-EU market.
9) New policy
Many departments now need to form their own policy in areas where they have not had to do so for decades. Departments such as the Department of Agriculture have had no real role in farm subsidies other than doling out money sent from Brussels. Now they have to form their own policy. For instance, even if there is a UK-wide farm subsidy scheme, does Stormont think it should be a copy and paste of the Common Agricultural Policy, or should it be less generous or targeted differently? To give certainty to industry, a policy framework needs to be set out in coming months, even if the detail will take much longer to decide.
10) Legislative scrutiny
A major argument of the Leave side was that EU regulations were overburdensome. Post-Brexit, many of those – in areas such as employment – will transfer to Stormont. The Executive needs to agree on whether to begin by keeping every EU regulation as a starting point or whether to take the two or three-year period before Brexit to scrutinise and change legislation from the point at which the UK leaves.