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22 August 2017

FSB Northern Ireland: View from the Chair for August

Amidst the recrimination and angst since the Brexit Referendum, many suggestions have emerged as to how post-Brexit arrangements might work. Unfortunately, most of these seem to put the cart before the horse; proposing mechanisms to service an outcome without prior agreement as to the overarching principles that determine the nature of that outcome.

Favourite amongst these has been the panacea of “technological solutions”, a simple phrase that may, indeed, feature within the eventual delivery but that ignores the reality that technology is there to serve our ends, not to master them. There has been talk of “i-pads in lorry cabs”; online processes; scanning; and much else, but little reference to the regime that would be policed by this technology. For what sort of customs and border would these mechanisms deliver solutions?

Before designing the engine and running gear, we need to know what sort of vessel we are propelling – otherwise there is a very real danger that it will sink rather than fly. In essence, we need an outline agreement on how the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom will co-exist and, for FSB members here, we need to understand Northern Ireland’s role within that new paradigm.

When entering a negotiation, most skilled operators will have their ZOPA and their BATNA their Zone of Possible Agreement and their Best Alternative to Negotiated Agreement. As we approach the next round of UK-EU negotiations, the UK Government has now taken the initiative to publish its post-Brexit proposals for Northern Ireland – essentially outlining what it hopes is the zone of possible agreement in which all parties will find space to occupy.

The picture they have painted is more impressionist than realist – an attempt to create a general impression of the relationships that the Government would like to see in operation, unfettered by the need to produce a detailed depiction of the eventual settlement. Some critics of this approach have already rejected the paper as imaginative idealization (or worse); however, in its favour, the paper does at least provide a vision of how the only terrestrial interface between the EU and the UK might operate – in broad brush.

It is generally accepted amongst the business community that avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is crucially important. This position paper recognises that need, accepting that businesses must be able to continue to have access to the workers and skills they need, including those who travel across the border for work every day. To address this, the paper proposes continued freedom of movement for people along the lines of the Common Travel Area – open borders between Great Britain, Northern Ireland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands. It also recognises the need for easy trade across the border, especially for goods which criss-cross it in the course of the production process; and the paper also recognises the role of EU funds within the peace process and offers to commit to retain or replace them. Underpinning all of this, the proposals embrace the need for any solution to uphold the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

Clearly, the Government recognises the unique nature of the issues created at the land border on this island and believes that its proposals offer solutions to keep the border frictionless for the routine movement of people and goods. They have stated that, ahead of further negotiations, their proposals deliberately don’t proffer detailed potential solutions and they accept that they do not yet go far enough to meet the objective of trade across the land border being as seamless and frictionless as possible, but this is to invite further collaborative work with the negotiation partners to achieve that objective.

There is still a long way to go before agreement is reached with the EU but perhaps the Government’s ‘impressionist’ approach will give enough of the picture to allow the other negotiation parties to add to it and remain firmly within the ZOPA. Businesses want certainty as soon as possible and, at this stage, there is no sense of any viable alternative to negotiated agreement, let alone so many to choose from that a best one could be identified.



Read more about Wilfred Mitchell