Brexit Withdrawal Agreement a raffle prize worth winning

The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is a special hamper with our name on it with more treats in it than we could have expected to get

FOR you, the Christmas season may start in December. For me, it's about six months earlier. In July each year, I go onto the Ulster Society of Chartered Accountants website to check the dates of its annual Christmas charity lunch, and after identifying the date, my other Christmas entertainment obligations are arranged around it.

Like the four corners in the Cathedral Quarter from which all destinations were measured in Belfast, the charity lunch is the polar star of my December.

While the uninformed may dismiss this as just an "accountants' lunch", the initiated know it is always a great day. The usual Muldoon & Co (MCE's accountants) tables filled with both old friends and new at the full house in the Europa, complete with five hundred unwrapped children's toys for charity, the raffle, the school choir, the comedian and, yes, copious amounts of alcohol. It's a winning formula, every year.

And for the first time ever this year, I won a raffle prize; a Christmas hamper. It wasn't one of those bargain hampers with some jars of cranberry sauce and crackers for cheese propped up by a large amount of straw. This one had all sorts of fancy treats including three bottles of wine and a bottle of gin. I even remembered to take it home at the end of a (very) long day.

This year, though, it wasn't only the hamper that set the event apart, but a relatively serious initial conversation about Brexit and its implications for the economy and broader society on this island. Our table talked about what we know, what Northern Ireland could gain and how these decisions many have an impact not only on our economy but potentially our identity. What prompted my introduction of the conversation was a brilliant opinion piece in last Saturday's Financial Times from economist and commentator, David McWilliams.

Thanks to Kevin Gamble and his excellent team at Feile an Phobail, McWilliams will launch his new book this Thursday at St. Mary's University College. I suspect that event will be an expansion of his FT article which unpacked the longer-term implications of Brexit and its potential for unity, Go look up the article on the web if you can't make it on Thursday evening. I will be there.

In his article, McWilliams details how the development of the southern economy and society, including more progressive social legislation and higher household income, has advanced the debate for Irish unity. Perhaps for the first time, this question is well and truly on the table. His argument is compelling. Going back to 1921, 80 per cent of the industrial output of the entire island came from what was to become Northern Ireland, largely centred on Belfast.

In 1911, Belfast was the biggest city in Ireland and the north-east was the richest part of the island. However, that picture has changed massively in the one hundred years since. Now southern industrial output is far greater than ours here.

The Republic of Ireland's exports of goods and services are €282.4bn; our total exports are only €10.1bn in comparison. And while there is a large multi-national component to consider in the southern figures, nevertheless the overall number demonstrates the vast difference in the output of the two economies. Also in the Republic, one in six people are foreign-born. Here, the number is fewer than one in 20.

But the killer statistic for me is the numbers quoted for income per head: €22,000 here and €38,000 in Ireland. That's a serious difference and the picture is not improving. The subsidy from London would mean that if Northern Ireland had to pay for itself now, its budget deficit would be about 27 per cent of its GDP. That subvention is just over €10bn annually; from the perspective of total GDP figure of under €50bn, this is a very big burden. But Ireland's GDP is over £300 billion so Northern Ireland would cost less than 4 per cent of southern GDP annually. And obviously the percentage reduces further when you combine the two numbers.

In McWilliam's view, as he makes the case in the FT, Irish unity is very affordable, although he is less bullish on either population being warm to this idea, particularly people south of the border not ready to foot the bills. And coming back to our discussion at the lunch, suffice to say, there were very interesting views from a mixed group of people at the table.

One thing made clear by McWilliams and by my colleagues over our festive meal, is that a beneficial Withdrawal Agreement is vital and achievable for this economy. And while the news is shifting every hour as I write this the day before the vote in the House of Commons, it looks like Theresa May's government will lose the vote if it goes ahead. When you read this on Tuesday morning, the picture may be different. I hope so.

The importance of a beneficial Withdrawal Agreement has been made very clear also by our business community which has stood tall and firm on its position on this issue in recent weeks - much to the annoyance and frustration of the DUP.

I was at the Chamber of Commerce's President's Banquet where 850 people heard the impressive Chamber President Ellvena Graham once again support what is in the best interests of the Northern Ireland economy.

She also reached out to the DUP and the very few others who appear not to want this deal. “We are not the enemy. We want the outcome that's best for business, for consumers, for the economy and for the future stability of Northern Ireland – and we'll do everything we can to ensure we get it”, she said.

Ellvena spoke eloquently and with gravitas, and the message was received with resounding applause. Great respect to her, and the many business groupings recently for continuing to raise their voices, despite political awkwardness.

In his piece, McWilliams points out that a stronger northern economy is likely to make for a stronger union. However, the DUP hasn't grasped the notion that the best way for Northern Ireland to achieve economic gains is by embracing the special status trading option offered in the Withdrawal Agreement. For the DUP, blinkered by their brand of unionism, the nuances of the good seem lost in their quest for the perfect. Which, of course, is not perfect at all if you look at the society and economy of Northern Ireland as it is today.

It's important though not to overcomplicate Withdrawal Agreement discussions with longer term hopes of unity. For me, today, all I can see is a special hamper with our name on it with more treats in it than we could have expected to get.

It may not be what everybody really wants, but this prize has been wrapped up with a bow by the EU and the British and Irish governments. We don't often win raffle prizes in this place. I hope we have the courage, foresight and support to win this one.

:: Paul McErlean ( is managing director of MCE Public Relations

Next week: Conor Lambe

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