Exclusive: Northern Ireland’s paltry Brexit fund

PUBLISHED: 22:27 09 May 2018 | UPDATED: 22:27 09 May 2018

A vandalised 'Welcome to Northern Ireland' sign at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in Middletown, Co. Armagh.

A vandalised 'Welcome to Northern Ireland' sign at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in Middletown, Co. Armagh.

PA Wire/PA Images

Northern Ireland might be about to bear the brunt of Brexit but new government figures suggest that the region will be woefully unprepared for it.

The New European has learned that of the £3 billion set aside for the monumental task of unwinding the UK’s decades-long EU membership, just £15.2 million – 0.5% of the total – will be assigned to the region by March 2019, at which point it could be left policing a hard border.

The findings will raise concerns about the UK’s readiness to leave and come against a backdrop of a divided cabinet, a series of defeats for ministers in the House of Lords, and a government with no overall majority in the House of Commons.

The £3 billion was announced in Philip Hammond’s budget in November to help public bodies prepare for all possible outcomes of the Brexit negotiations – including a ‘no deal’ scenario. It is to be allocated over two years, meaning half of the money will only come after March 2019, when the UK will leave the EU.

Though the government intends to secure a transition deal until December 2020, this is not yet guaranteed until the UK and EU sign and ratify an exit deal, meaning much of the funding could come after the UK has already engaged in a cliff-edge exit.

This situation is particularly dire for Northern Ireland. Its Brexit funding was allocated according to an arcane set of rules, known as the ‘Barnett Formula’, which distribute money from the central government across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, largely based on the population of each, relative to England.

However, in the case of Brexit, Northern Ireland faces a series of challenges the other nations of the UK do not – most obviously its long land border with the EU, but also a trading relationship with the bloc that is even more interdependent, as well as a troubled history of conflict.

The question of the Irish border is one of the central issues which must be solved for the UK to have a transition deal, and the UK and EU seem no closer to agreeing a solution for this than they were 14 months ago. Both sides agree that there must be no return to a hard border – with all its potential for disruption and violence – but no-one can find a way to achieve this.

The problems are simply that if the UK and EU are not in a customs union and single market, leaving the border unpoliced would open up huge potential for large-scale smuggling and criminal activity. One solution to this would be to create customs checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK; another would be to give Northern Ireland a special status – but this is hugely unpopular with the DUP, upon whom Theresa May relies to stay in government, and many others. A third option would be for the UK as a whole to stay in the single market and customs union, which May has ruled out. So far, any options outside of those three have appeared to amount to nothing more than wishful thinking – which hasn’t stopped their being quoted ad nauseam by politicians.

The situation has created real concern among the organisations to whom will fall the responsibility for policing the border and tackling cross-border crime. As things stand, they don’t even know what the border will look like in 11 months’ time.

They may hope to gain more time to prepare through a transition deal, but even then they face rapid change, and have just the £15.2m to allocate across all Northern Irish Brexit priorities – with sources suggesting policing and security will get just a fraction of that.

Garvan Walshe, a former policy adviser to the Conservative party and CEO of Brexit Analytics, said: “This is a paltry sum, clearly not enough money either to pay for a hard border on the island of Ireland or to put one in the Irish Sea.”

A report by parliament’s influential Home Affairs Committee published earlier this year raised similar concerns about inadequate preparation in Northern Ireland, warning that at present it has just 57 border force offices policing four sea ports, three major airports and a 335-mile long land border, with a recent recruitment drive adding just six more staff to that total. “Rushed and under-resourced changes will put border security at risk,” it concluded.

The Treasury pointed out that £1.5 billion of the funds it has put aside for Brexit are still due to be allocated to departments and public bodies to spend next year, meaning Northern Ireland can expect more in total – though this extra funding would not be in place until after next March. Its spokesman also noted that the government was spending money centrally that would affect infrastructure and preparedness in Northern Ireland, including on HMRC and the Home Office.

“We are ensuring that UK government departments and the devolved administrations can prepare effectively for all scenarios as we leave the EU and have announced £3 billion in funding over the next two years to support this work,” the spokesman said.

“Much of this funding will support UK-wide preparation across government, which includes Northern Ireland. Additionally, a restored Northern Ireland Executive will benefit from £15.2m further funding.”

There are broader questions around whether departments will find themselves at all ready for Brexit, and how much funding they will receive, too, as some of the departments with the biggest tasks ahead of them have taken the lion’s share of the available funding.

The Home Office, for example, faces the task of helping three million EU immigrants retain their right to live and work in the UK, a task which will be closely watched by governments and media outlets across the EU. As a result of this, it received £395 million of the available £1.5 billion (though many remain worried it will struggle with the task all the same). Meanwhile, Defra – which faces managing rules on food and environmental standards – took a further £310 million, meaning just two departments got almost half of all available funding.

Meanwhile, as the specialist outlet Public Finance noted, this leaves three central departments which received no funding to manage Brexit at all – because they didn’t ask for any money. These were the DWP, which manages benefits (including to EU citizens, who are entitled to several of them); department for housing, communities and local government; and department for education.

In Northern Ireland’s case, all of these challenges are larger and more urgent, and yet it faces still another hurdle: the Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended for almost 16 months, following early elections after a political scandal involving DUP leader Arlene Foster, which led to unsuccessful talks to form an executive.

This leaves little ability for politicians from Northern Ireland to try to plan or pressure central government – other than the DUP’s ability to lobby the government in exchange for support, which freezes out their political rivals. The result is Northern Ireland heading towards Brexit under-governed, under-staffed and under-funded – with little prospect for change in sight.

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