Jimmy Kelly: Protecting Ireland in Brexitland

Last year, the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union – while those in the Republic were never asked. Yet working people in both parts of the island must now cope with the fallout from a Brexit they either did not choose or for which they did not vote.

Brexit poses (at least) a triple threat to Ireland north and south: to jobs and living standards; to workers’ rights; and to the peace process which has transformed lives and communities.

As a cross-border trade union, and one of the largest civil society organisations on the island, Unite is determined to ensure that workers in Ballymena and Bandon do not pay the price for a Tory Brexit. To that end, we have put forward proposals both separately and through the TUC and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.

Our analysis of the challenges of Brexit is not static: it will continue evolving to respond not only to moves by governments, but also to the changing economic, political and international context. Only our bottom line is static: the rights of working people and communities throughout Ireland and Britain must not only be protected but enhanced.

Voters, including many Unite members, endorsed Brexit for a range of reasons – reasons our union respects. But the Tory decision to hold a referendum on Brexit had its roots not in concerns about manufacturing decline or jobs, but rather in a desire to appease key constituencies while pursuing what Len McCluskey has dubbed their “low-wage, low-tax utopia”.

Last month, in a bid to allay the concerns of workers, businesses and consumers both on these islands and in Europe, the Westminster Government published a series of proposals including measures ostensibly designed to mitigate the impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland.

Unite was not impressed. The proposals offer at best a temporary band-aid for the consequences of Brexit, with little to reassure workers, businesses or potential investors on the island of Ireland.

The Tory administration has created an ‘Alice in Brexitland’ scenario. In a bid to have their cake and eat it, they restated their intention to avoid a hard border while establishing an interim ’shadow’ customs union with all the benefits of being both within and outside the union.

Given that one of the key Brexit benefits claimed by the London government is the chance to pursue ‘free trade agreements’ with non-EU countries outside the current customs union, it is unclear how they will avoid the immediate need for a hard border to monitor the movement of goods from such countries after March 2019.

And a hard border on the island of Ireland, with tariffs and trade controls, would be to the detriment of the economies of both parts of this island.

Where economies, investors and workers need certainty, the Tories continue to sow confusion. This is inhibiting investment and casting a shadow over the economies on both sides of the border, with the threat of job losses, wage deflation, and further damage to the already dislocated border economy.

The agri-food sector in particular is highly vulnerable to the threat of import duties and tariffs, as well as threats to the legal status of EU workers – threats which have both economic and humanitarian implications. While Unite welcomes the apparent commitment by the Westminster government to continue the Common Travel Area between Britain and Ireland, the rights of all citizens lawfully living in the UK must be guaranteed, as must the rights of the tens of thousands who cross the Irish border daily.

In place of the ongoing political confusion, Unite has proposed a range of confidence-building measures focused on jobs and living standards to be delivered in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

It is now up to politicians in both jurisdictions to secure measures which increase confidence while cushioning the impact of Brexit in general, and last month’s proposals in particular. Steps proposed by Unite include raising the wage floor, tackling precarious employment practices, and extending collective bargaining rights as well as deepening sectoral collective bargaining structures. At the same time we need to raise the social wage in both jurisdictions, while also clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion.

Rather than applying temporary band-aids to the fundamental issues raised by Brexit, working people need governments to focus on the day-to-day realities of our lives post-Brexit – whether that’s in London, Dublin or in Belfast.

Jimmy Kelly is Unite’s Ireland regional secretary