Brexit: What are the implications for Northern Ireland?

If there’s one word that has been on everyone’s lips this year, it’s Brexit. The Prime Minister has signed the letter notifying the European Union that the UK is leaving and will trigger Article 50. Theresa May has said her goal was for the UK to build a “deep and special partnership” after Brexit – but what are the implications here? Talks on the divorce and future relations are expected to take around two years and there has been a lot of speculation and debate around the prospect of a so-called ‘hard border’ in Ireland.


Northern Ireland’s biggest export market remains its nearest neighbour with just under one third of its total manufactured goods - £2.4bn – being sold across the land border in 2016. After the Irish Republic, Northern Ireland’s largest customer is the United States – with around £1.6bn worth of goods sent stateside in 2016.


The EU contributes about £250m a year to farmers and farmers in Northern Ireland had hoped to maintain their farm subsidies post-Brexit. All indications from the government, however, are that the annual cheque is a thing of the past. Northern Ireland currently gets 10% of the UK’s European subsidy payments.


QUB and Ulster University have warned that leaving the EU could risk their ability to attract international staff, students and EU research funding. The number of EU students applying to QUB dropped by 6% this year while Ulster has warned that Brexit puts 20m euros (£17.5m) of EU funding and tuition fees in doubt. A number of schools here also participate in the EU Erasmus+ programme which sees them partner with, and send pupils to, schools in other European countries.


At the moment there are 1,000 nursing vacancies: The acute shortage of nurses led to four separate international recruitment drives in the past two years. In 2016 around 50 job offers were made to nurses from Italy and Romania, although the bulk of the jobs - around 490 - were offered to nurses from further afield in the Philippines. The health unions are urging the government to clarify its intentions - there is concern that some foreign nationals may feel it necessary and safer to return home. 


The triggering of Article 50 looks likely to further exacerbate the divide between the Stormont parties, who are already unable to form a power-sharing executive. The DUP and Sinn Fein campaigned on different sides before last June's EU referendum. But their leaders were able to patch up their differences and sign a joint letter to Theresa May last August. That letter set out shared concerns about the border, trading costs, the energy market, EU funding and treatment of the agri-food sector. With no power-sharing executive in place, Stormont politicians currently have little, if any, influence over the Brexit negotiations. However, London and Dublin are both committed to maintaining as open a border as possible, whilst the EU's Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier says the EU will not stand for anything that weakens dialogue and peace in Northern Ireland.


Edward Gray