Stephen Farry: Brexit is increasingly viewed through the lens of identity politics in NI

Stephen Farry, Alliance Party deputy leader, shares his thoughts on Brexit and its implications for Northern Ireland

The Alliance Party's Stephen Farry. Liam McBurney/PA Wire.

BREXIT entails new divisions and barriers. Yet, as a divided society and a contested space, Northern Ireland can only really succeed based on sharing and interdependence.

There is an overwhelming case for a unique solution or special deal for this region. This needs to have cross-community support and be presented as a pragmatic response.

However, Brexit is increasingly viewed through the lens of identity politics, with unionists insisting on a one-size-fits-all Brexit for the UK as a whole, and some nationalists portraying any special deal or status as a stepping stone to a united Ireland.

We really need to focus on building a cross-community approach in Northern Ireland. Therefore, while I fully respect the right of various parties and people to argue for constitutional change, if we end up conflating the achievement of special deal for Northern Ireland with the pursuit of a united Ireland, it will be fatal to creating a cross-community consensus.

Much of the public debate has been around avoiding a hard border, either across the island of Ireland or down the Irish Sea. The only sure way to avoid either of these outcomes is for the UK as a whole to have a Customs Union with the European Union.

In the event the UK as a whole opts to leave the Single Market, the core of any special deal should be Northern Ireland continuing to be part of it.

The Single Market is essential to how people lead their lives and do business. It lowers both barriers and costs, enhances consumer rights, protects workers, and provides environmental standards.

In order for this to work, we would need to fully abide by the Four Fundamental Freedoms, including the Freedom of Movement of Labour.

The Assembly would also need to have full competency to ensure Northern Ireland remains in compliance with EU law and the rules of the market.

This presupposes there is enough common ground to restore and sustain local power-sharing. And there would be a reversal of the power grab by Westminster through the current EU Withdrawal Bill.

The EU and UK Single Markets are not mutually exclusive. Northern Ireland would adhere to a higher set of regulatory standards than the rest of the UK. But the implications of this would not be as stark as it may seem. Crucially, it would not entail any physical border.

The rest of the UK may choose for good reasons to maintain European standards anyway in many respects, and individual companies may determine that it is their own self-interest to do so.

Furthermore, there are examples of existing regulatory divergence, and indeed most local parties want to diverge further with a lower rate of corporation tax.

Ultimately, all of this would be entirely consistent with the Principle of Consent. It preserves the current Good Friday Agreement arrangements and constitutional status quo. As such this can be considered the Devolution Max scenario.

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