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Life in the Border Counties Post-Brexit: The Challenges? – Doherty

20 July, 2017 - by Pearse Doherty TD


Speaking at the MacGill Summer School yesterday, Sinn Féin TD and Finance spokesperson Pearse Doherty said that “where the border separates north and south, and the countless communities which lie either side, that the effects of Brexit on the very economic and social fabric of this island of ours will be hardest felt”.

The Donegal TD said:

“Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, and with it to shamefully drag the six counties out as well despite the desire of its people to remain, will profoundly alter every facet and feature of life on this island as we know it.

“For border business for example, the very real threat posed by the imposition of customs posts and check points along the border following Brexit is unthinkable, yet this is exactly the reality facing the region should the north’s membership of the EU be brought to a timely end.

“In the immensely important areas of peace and reconciliation too which, since the Good Friday Agreement and what internationally is viewed as one of the great success stories of conflict resolution, the influence of our joint EU membership in ensuring its success has been profound.

Indeed, Europe has been a critical partner for peace. As well as it providing substantial political support, financial supports – which in 2015 alone saw some £160M of structural and a further £270M of peace funding being allocated to the region – has led to greater economic and social progress on an all-island basis.

“Perhaps, it may just be the case that, as one of the not bargained for consequences of Brexit, the argument for Irish Unity will take on new and never before seen impetus.

“I see no reason why, in these challenging and uncertain times which lie ahead, as we enter a new, post-Brexit world that that very same unwavering and unrepentant fighting Irish spirit cannot help us, as it has done in the past, to not only overcome whatever challenge Brexit may throw our way, but also to grasp the opportunities which Brexit may just yet so happen to have in store.” 

Note: Full text of speech below

MacGill Summer School 2017

Wednesday 19th July 2017, at 10.30a.m., Glenties

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Life in the Border Counties Post-Brexit: The Challenges? – Pearse Doherty TD

A chairde,           

Ar an chéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil áthas orm a bheith libh ur gcuideachta inniú mar chuid don seachtú scoil samhraidh is tríocha anseo sna Gleannta in Iar Dhúnn an Gall.

As I said, I want to start by saying how delighted I am to have been asked to be here with you all today as part of MacGill Summer School, now in its 37th year, taking place – as it does every year - in the beautiful and picturesque town of Glenties here in West Donegal.

I want to also say a huge thank you to the organizers for inviting me to come along to participate in this year’s series, and in particular I want to pay tribute to Director Dr Joe Mulholland whose passion, hard work and dedication each and every year has made the MacGill Summer School the institution which it is today.

It has become renowned for being a hotbed of constructive, engaging, captivating and often at times fiery debate, and I’m sure that this morning will be no different– Maith Sibh.

In keeping with the theme of this year’s programme of ‘Global Turbulence and Uncertainty’, I’ve been asked to speak to you today on the subject of Brexit and its many implications for the entire border region.

And that takes me on to the title of this morning’s session which is ‘Life in the Border Counties Post Brexit: The Challenges?’

So much has been said and talked about in the last 12 months since last year’s historic June 23rd Brexit Referendum.

So much so that the term ‘Brexit’ has now become part and parcel of our everyday speech, and today dominates the air waves.

Despite today’s 24/7 news cycle, Brexit is consistently central to the news agenda on any given day - be it print, broadcast or online.

Despite all this discourse, and far from providing comfort and clarity to all of us who stand to be directly affected by Britain’s withdrawal, to date there has been little by way of reassurance emanating from the British Government or indeed from Government here.

While Theresa May continues to spout out a repetitive slew of meaningless phrases and buzz words such as “Brexit means Brexit” Ad nauseam, and for all the talk coming from the Taoiseach of the “unique challenges” for Ireland which Brexit poses, huge uncertainties loom large.

“Hard Brexit”, “Soft Brexit” and “Whatever you’re having yourself Brexit”, are mere buzz words. The type of Brexit which the Tory establishment has chosen to pursue, to take Britain and the north out of not only the EU, but also the Customs Union, will inevitably see barriers erected.

And, amidst all this idle talk, stands an electorate becoming ever increasingly despondent.

Consequently, many questions remain unanswered; great fears have yet to be allayed; and complex legal, theoretical as well as practical challenges and hurdles are as present today as they were some 12 months ago.

Worryingly for us here, and arguably the single greatest of them all, is the implications and negative effects which Brexit will inevitably have on the Border region.

For it will be here, where the border separates north and south, and the countless communities which lie either side, that the effects of Brexit on the very economic and social fabric of this island of ours will be hardest felt.

And while the economic upheaval caused by something as momentous as Brexit for a region blessed with relative prosperity and economic good fortune would no doubt prove catastrophic, for a region such as the border, where the socio-economic reality is anything but ideal, the implications do not even bear thinking about.

One only has to look at recent census data for our own county, where the unemployment rate is amongst the highest in the state and where the number of young adults has dropped significantly, to see that all is not well in the border region.

And this is before Brexit has even happened. And make no mistake about it. If Brexit is to deliver the political, economic and social earthquake which many believe it will, then right here – I’m sorry to have to say – will be its destructive epicentre.

Today thanks to the collective efforts of all those who, down through the years, have had the vision and determination to work to bring about the ever closer economic and social co-operation which now exists between us, the Border as a result is now less discernible, much less tactile than at other time since the shameful partition of this land.

Brexit will, without doubt, change all that.

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, and with it to shamefully drag the six counties out as well despite the desire of its people to remain, will profoundly alter every facet and feature of life on this island as we know it.

For the ordinary man, woman and child; the ordinary worker; farmer; business person; community group, and indeed all those who choose to call this island home, the repercussions of Brexit will be real in their consequence.

And a chairde, none of this is to say that the EU is perfect – far from it. It’s no secret that, as a party, Sinn Féin has long been known to be less than, shall we say, enamoured with the EU, its institutions, and its bureaucratic, often calamitous nature.

We have long opposed, and still do, the EU’s seemingly endless pursuit of ever greater fiscal and political union amongst the nations which make up the bloc.

Not to mention the blatant and unashamed power grab which, for years now, has seen an ever growing disconnect emerge between Brussels and the peoples of Europe.

But for these, and indeed for all its many faults, as the wise old Irish proverb goes; “Ní bhíonn sa oigan locht”. That is to say nothing, not even a political colossus such as the European Union, is ever going to be perfect.

Having said that, no challenge is insurmountable and – despite its flaws– one can only hope to change the shape and direction of the EU by being within, rather than being without.

This is why we in Sinn Féin believe that the Brexit course of the Tory party is not the right one. We feel that the fate of Ireland, north and south, and indeed that of the many nations which today make up the EU, are best served through our continued membership in a spirit of partnership and co-operation.

And if you’re in any way sceptical of the almost apocalyptic picture being painted by many concerning Brexit, then all one has to do to envision an image of such misery is simply to look at the numbers involved.

For border business for example, the very real threat posed by the imposition of customs posts and check points along the border following Brexit is unthinkable, yet this is exactly the reality facing the region should the north’s membership of the EU be brought to a timely end.

Such a troubling scenario raises serious doubts about the some €1.2 billion in goods and services which is traded freely and at present without restriction between the north, the south and Britain each and every year.

It too throws up countless logistical and practical challenges for all those involved in transporting those goods as part of the some 2.3 million individual crossings which freight and heavy goods vehicles make both into and out of the north annually.

And even before accounting for trade tariffs, international trading experts have already warned that such customs obligations are likely to add an additional €100 per consignment to the average cost of transporting commercial goods across the border.

This is something which industry insiders have likened to “a new tax” effectively being introduced on business here over night - a burden which the12,000 individual firms and companies involved in this type of trading here can ill afford.

And let’s not forgot that behind all this data around cross-border trade, there are real people, real jobs, real wages and real livelihoods at risk. It is trade by which it’s estimated some 200,000 people are employed directly and depend upon.

And for the individual too, especially those living this side of the border, should the Tory/DUP vision for Brexit come to pass, then we too will have to contend with customs obligations of our own.

What is today considered to be the routine trip into the north to shop will too be subject to new and heightened tax implications.

For us, the trip into Derry or Belfast to buy that new tv or laptop will, post-Brexit, see duty on those goods being subject to customs duty, plus VAT.

Similarly, agriculture faces challenges like few other industries in the wake of Brexit. Costly barriers to trade, physical border checks and the prospect of two regulatory regimes, threaten age old trade practices between north and south.

With 40% of all agri-food exports from the south going to the UK market each year, while in the north where farmers there alone received some £340million in agriculture and fisheries funding in 2015 from EU Schemes, agriculture on both sides of the border stands to be disproportionately affected.

In the immensely important areas of peace and reconciliation too which, since the Good Friday Agreement and what internationally is viewed as one of the great success stories of conflict resolution, the influence of our joint EU membership in ensuring its success has been profound.

Indeed, Europe has been a critical partner for peace. As well as it providing substantial political support, financial supports – which in 2015 alone saw some £160M of structural and a further £270M of peace funding being allocated to the region – has led to greater economic and social progress on an all-island basis.

And more generally, it is simply stating the obvious to say that Brexit runs entirely counter to Irish national interest. Indeed, one just has to look at the many who stand to be impacted by it.

They’re the countless Families, workers, business people, students, and tourists who – each and every day – travel freely and frequently across the border to live, to work, to study, to access shared services, to visit friends and family, and simply to do the things which they have always done which just so happens to involve crossing a border which, for many of them, in their hearts and minds should no longer exist.

A chairde, whether we choose to recognise it or not, Brexit may ultimately come to define the futures of not just us here today, but of the generations still to come who shall in future find themselves residing in the border region.

If we are serious about extracting the best possible outcome for this island in these negotiations, particularly for the north and the Border region as a whole, then we must adopt a much more imaginative and innovative approach than is currently being pursued.

And let’s be clear, this mustn’t be an approach which puts the interests of the few ahead of the needs of the many: it is one which puts the wants, desires and the interests of the Irish people above all else.

In terms of our contribution, to that end I and my colleagues in Sinn Féin have consistently led the charge in arguing for special designated status for the north within the EU to be adopted as the state’s official position on Brexit going forward.

The Government has a responsibility to adopt this position as the formal negotiating position; it is the position voted on by the Dáil democratically, and failure to do so would see Government acting in contempt of Parliament.

And while in any negotiations there is never any guarantee that your negotiating position will be the outcome afterwards, nevertheless I can guarantee that if the position is not tabled during these talks, then it will not play a part in the final agreement.

Alongside this proposal to retain the north’s access to the single market and the customs union, the Irish Government needs to advance proposals which would include maintaining the north’s continued access to all EU funding streams, including agricultural, fisheries, and structural funds.

This funding has, and continues to transform our island and change people’s lives for the better, particularly in many border communities: its continuation after Brexit is therefore crucial.

We have called on authorities here, working with our partners in Europe, to actively seek to leverage more favourable terms for match-funding projects such as lower rates of co-financing, and a derogation on EU Fiscal Rules to allow the state to increase investment and ensure that we as an economy are best placed to withstand any potential future Brexit shocks coming down the line.

Such measures could be complimented by the establishment, as Sinn Féin is advocating, of a dedicated ‘Brexit Solidarity Fund’ to target investment in sectors which stand to be most impacted by Brexit, and the expansion of the EU Globalisation Adjustment Fund to support the many workers who it’s likely will require assistance post-withdrawal.

Why is Sinn Féin taking this stance? Because we believe firmly that such a solution is necessary to protect all-Ireland trade, defend our agri-sectors, guarantee the free movement of our people, to protect workers’ rights, guard civil liberties, the environment, to protect the peace process and, crucially, to uphold and respect the democratic will of a proud and resilient people.

A chairde, there‘s no doubt that Brexit will be the single greatest political challenge which we as an island will face in the years ahead.

Yet there is no reason that, with the right approach and will, we cannot overcome those challenges.

We as an island nation have, many times in our past, come up against moments of great adversity and unspeakable hardship.

Yet we’ve been through it all, and each and every time that innate fighting spirit,that unlearned, untaught, intrinsic, natural reactionary force within, for which we irish are famous and renowned, has persistently won the day.

And so to conclude, whatever one’s view on the matter Brexit has, despite its challenges, brought the issue of Irish re-unification firmly back onto the political agenda.

Just as Brexit quickly entered into our vocabulary today, it’s not beyond all probability to believe that, at its ultimate conclusion and as the term slowly begins to fade from popular usage, that this demise will coincide with the emergence of a new language.

A language which seeks to tear down the border, to build bridges, not walls: a language of hope rather than one of fear.

Perhaps, it may just be the case that, as one of the not bargained for consequences of Brexit, the argument for Irish Unity will take on new and never before seen impetus.

A chairde, I see no reason why, in these challenging and uncertain times which lie ahead, as we enter a new Post-Brexit world, that that very same unwavering and unrepentant fighting Irish spirit cannot help us, as it has done in the past, to not only overcome whatever challenge Brexit may throw our way, but also to grasp the opportunities which Brexit may just yet so happen to have in store

Go Raibh Maith Agaibh

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