As the prospect of a post-Brexit hard border continues to loom, Allen Meagher asks whether the threat Brexit poses to communities is being taken seriously.
It has been well established that Brexit poses a threat to the peace process on these islands but, beyond that, there are myriad other concerns to consider. Support and funding for many community groups is at risk, for instance, in spite of the broad impact their loss could have.
In late 2016, Anthony Soares, deputy director of the Centre of Cross Border Studies, told Changing Ireland that, because of Brexit’s impact to date, cross-border projects already need more funding – and this was before political power-sharing collapsed at Stormont.
In December, the House of Lords EU sub-committee deliberated on Brexit, saying an agreement should be drafted to “guarantee open land borders and sea boundaries, support cross-border trade and preserve EU funding for cross-border projects”. That same month, the issue also received attention from the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, while An Taoiseach Enda Kenny has addressed the matter as being of the utmost concern.
The UK’s Brexit minister, David Davis, visited Belfast and Dublin late last year, meeting with political representatives and business leaders. He did not meet community and voluntary sector representatives.
This sent out a strong signal to those in the sector that the priority is trade, commerce and business.
Meanwhile, as a direct result of the Brexit vote, community organisations are seeing an increasing workload. Witness, for example, the subsequent rise in hate crime, said Soares. [See below.]
Soares told Changing Ireland that there are “significant concerns” for communities on both sides of the border with regard to the continued funding of community projects if – or indeed when – the UK leaves the EU.
The European Social Fund (ESF) will continue for the Republic of Ireland. “They’ll be okay,” said Soares. However, for community groups in Northern Ireland, some of which depend almost completely on ESF funding, their very existence is under threat.
“We’re already seen organisations talking about shutting up shop. For example, I’m thinking of one project focused on young people’s employability. Groups are really concerned going forward,” he said.
“For cross-border projects, without the EU funding I don’t think a lot of them would continue to run,” he said. “Putting it generously, the governments in Dublin or Belfast don’t have the funding that those cross-border projects need.”
In the most positive scenario, cross-border projects may still have EU funding, but this depends on a soft exit. There is a precedent for this: Norway is outside the EU, but inside the single market, and takes part in social programmes.
One of the two most important cross-border programmes is Interreg, which covers Northern Ireland, the Republic, and West Scotland. (The other is the ESF.)
Interreg promotes “inter-regional integration,” the opposite of what Brexit was supposedly about.
The Peace Process
The other “really important programme”, according to Soares, is the Peace Programme: “We are the only part of the EU that has such a programme.”
“The needs, rationale and logic is there, but where the funding comes from? Even if the UK leaves completely and doesn’t want to fund any more cross-border projects, well, the need will still be there,” he said.
“The [Centre of Cross Border Studies] and other groups have been proposing, in that scenario, that the UK government should create a new Interreg for the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, West Scotland and also Wales. Let’s keep the projects going and new projects – by creating a new fund, we propose.”
The issue there is that a new UK government may come along and, at budget time, drop funding for peace and cross-border activities.
“That’s absolutely true,” admitted Soares. “In one year, the money could be taken away.”
EU funding has always been of increased value because it comes in seven-year cycles.
Soares’s organisation is safe as, since 2014, it has not relied on significant EU funding, but it is still campaigning hard with others
“A new hard border doesn’t have to be physical, because as soon as differences around rights and regulations emerge, it becomes a much more significant border.
“We’ve already started, since June, seeing an increase in hate-crimes against immigrants,” said Soares. Immigration was introduced to the discourse by those in the Leave campaign.
“We’ve proposed that, for the current Peace Programme, the Irish and UK governments should add a special pot of money to deal specifically with the uncertainty caused by the referendum result, and the erosion around social cohesion at the border and away from border.
“As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, Ireland [the Republic] could argue that it needs the EU to recognise special circumstances, and the EU might continue to support the Peace Programme. We in the Centre for Cross Border Studies have been arguing for that.
“Peace isn’t done. It’s a very young thing we have here. We have to continually work at it. We’re no different from other places. You can return to conflict – it doesn’t have to be violent conflict,” said Soares.