Northern Ireland Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir has told a committee of the Irish Government he believes the country to be "staring into a Brexit black hole." Speaking at an Oireachtas Committee (Irish parliament committee) today, the Sinn Féin Minister stated he could see no opportunities for Northern Ireland following the UK’s decision to leave the EU in the Brexit referendum earlier this year.
"I see no economic opportunity, no cultural opportunity, no opportunities for community uplift and no opportunity for peace-building" Ó Muilleoir told the committee, which has been hearing from witnesses over the last two months on the subject of Brexit and its implications for Ireland.
"I have failed to be persuaded by those who say that we're on the cusp of massive opportunities. To avoid that calamity, it's my job as Finance Minister to put in place the measures that will ensure we don't go over the Brexit cliff, and instead of that, we find a way - most probably under some type of special case or status - where we continue to enjoy the benefits of European membership," he continued.
Despite the Leave campaign winning a UK majority in June’s referendum with 52%, Northern Ireland voted by 56% to remain in the EU, a stance also held by the majority in Scotland, and in England’s capital city London. Legal challenges have since been mounted in Northern Ireland and London regarding their unwillingness to leave the EU, and talk has increased of a second independence referendum in Scotland which would allow them to decide for themselves whether to remain a member of the EU of not if passed.
In October, British Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed that the UK will trigger Article 50 of the EU Lisbon Treaty (the move that will officially begin the divorce with the EU) by the end of March 2017, with plans to complete their departure within two years of that date.
This may be delayed, however, as a result of the case being heard in London. The British government state they do not need parliamentary approval to initiate the formal process of Brexit. The London High Court, however, ruled in favor of Gina Miller, an investment manager and lead claimant in the London case in November meaning parliamentary approval may need to be sought before Brexit can be officially triggered.
There is still much uncertainty over the future of the relationship between governments in Ireland and the UK and in particular the relationship between the Irish government and the Northern Ireland Assembly when Brexit takes place.
Speaking in October, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan admitted that a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland can not be completely ruled out.
Although Minister Flanagan has discussed the border issue with UK politicians and believes that no party wishes to return to the hard border of the past, it is still a possibility.
"That scenario (of a hard border) cannot be ruled out,” he said.
"(However,) I have been speaking to all of my 26 EU colleagues over the past few weeks, and I have impressed on them that we cannot go back to the old days of a heavily fortified border between us because over 30,000 people cross every day."
Although customs checks have not existed along this border since January 1, 1993, security forces often asked travelers for identification because of the violence of the Troubles. British military checkpoints were stationed at main border crossings while other crossings were also made impassable until these controls were removed within the Good Friday Agreement. The last of the controls was removed in 2005.
Ó Muilleoir’s statements in the Oireachtas today about the future of Northern Ireland after their departure from the EU come just weeks after Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness also criticized the British government for their handling of Brexit, referring to them as "A British government that appears totally divided at leadership level and really doesn't know how to process this very difficult situation."
"[the Sinn Fein] position is that we want to remain in Europe. We want a specially-designated position for the North, given that the people of the North voted to see their future in Europe," he continued.