Money owed by Republic to Britain could be diverted north

 The game of Brexit poker doesn’t suit our needs. Let’s see a few bluffs being called
 The game of Brexit poker doesn’t suit our needs. Let’s see a few bluffs being called

TWO weeks ago, the British Treasury claimed to address the issues of “uncertainty” for EU funding which are caused by the Brexit agenda.

The Treasury gave a partial assurance that some EU funding could be protected up to 2020.

However, it only guaranteed funding that has already been committed before this autumn’s Westminster budget statement. That’s the certainty of its uncertainty. In truth, it was a holding statement.

There is little likelihood of the British government tipping its negotiating hand to Europe in advance of Brexit talks commencing in early 2017.

In the interim, however, the financial stability of citizens and communities is not best served by the Treasury’s tactical game of Brexit poker.

That’s why a more thoughtful and strategic approach is needed than we’ve seen to date locally. A gear-change is now required in Ireland’s public diplomacy and policy-making around Brexit.

The starting point is acknowledging the limitations of the north’s scale, size, influence and leverage.

Ultimatums from the executive simply won’t work with the Treasury. Nor will inflated demands to be at the centre of big Brussels meetings. Our politicians will not be directly running any Brexit negotiations with Europe.

Instead, the executive will likely have more luck with Whitehall if – working in partnership with the Irish government – it offers some solutions to London’s homemade Brexit mess, and not just dispenses righteous demands.

One possible policy option for dealing with the issue of threatened EU finding is to focus on finding ‘dead money’ within the system.

For example, the Irish government currently owes the British government £3.2 billion in a bilateral loan from 2010, granted during the last financial crash.

The money was issued under the Loans to Ireland Act 2010, with a range of fascinating contractual terms (including the personal liability of the Irish ambassador to London in respect of any breach).

In April 2016, Westminster’s latest report on the loan stated that interest repayments of £274 million had been made by Ireland. The main loan repayments are scheduled between April 2019 and March 2021.

Crucially, the terms of the loan allow the British government to grant a waiver on repayments, or indeed to renegotiate some or all of the loan. A couple of options therefore arise.

On the one hand, as part of Brexit negotiations, the Treasury could be pressed to ensure that some or all of the £3.2 billion repayments are diverted towards the north’s particular needs between 2019 and 2021.

This would be as additional budget support and it becomes possible because the money has not yet been committed to other projects.

The alternative option is that the executive and the Irish government make a joint bid to renegotiate the repayment dates (and further interest) with the British Treasury.

If repayments could be deferred for some years, then several billion euro could be released in direct or collateral budget support from Dublin to Belfast.

Either way, the coincidence of timing and amount could assist the north’s needs in the years ahead.

Such additional budgetary support would require conditions for expenditure in the north which actively promotes the equality agenda, social inclusion, north-south harmonisation and European projects.

But the point is that such ideas have the potential to help smooth the path towards further transition and stable progress across the island.

Add to that the possibility of the euro as an all-island currency and the benefit of an intensive all-island attitudinal survey under the 2021 census.

With a range of options like that – and/or others – the executive and the Irish government could jointly begin to take the initiative in shaping this island’s approach to the Brexit negotiations.

No longer would the Treasury’s certainty of uncertainty leave the north’s citizens dangling in the wind.

The pathway towards Brexit invites further refinement of this island’s transition within continued EU arrangements, in ways that benefit all citizens.

Diplomacy and democracy may be frustrating and imperfect tools. But they should be balanced by a sense of historical perspective and an acceptance of our own position in the global scale.

Likewise too, a constructive focus is needed on pragmatic political outcomes which are built around creative policy options.

Ireland’s 21st century interlinkages with Britain and Europe are now entangled like spaghetti. Concepts of constitution and commerce have been transformed unrecognisably over the past century.

Ireland’s polity, north and south, needs to focus on producing viable options to Brexit and not just fixating on justifiable frustrations.

That requires realistic ideas which signpost positive outcomes for this island’s future stable progress in an EU context.

The game of Brexit poker doesn’t suit our needs. Let’s see a few bluffs being called.