Unite members from the Ireland region gathered in Belfast on Monday (February 13) to discuss the growing danger of a hard Brexit to the peace and prosperity of the pivotal region and formulate plans to prevent it.
Around 70 union representatives, from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, attended the regional Brexit conference to examine the risk to jobs in their respective industries posed by the increasingly untenable and uncertain path taken by Theresa May’s government.
Addressing the conference, Unite’s regional secretary for Ireland Jackie Pollock said, “The decision to leave the EU will define the economy and politics of Ireland for generations. Working people on both parts of this island must now cope with the fallout from a Brexit they voted against or didn’t have a say in.
“Brexit poses at least a triple threat to Ireland north and south: to jobs and living standards, to workers’ rights and to the peace process which has transformed lives and communities.”
In December, May signed an agreement with the EU to maintain “regulatory alignment” to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which voted to remain within the bloc.
The agreement, however, is seen as a fudge that simply kicks the contentious issue down the road and is further complicated by the fact Northern Irish DUP MPs are propping up May’s minority government.
Pollock said the Tories have created an “Alice in Brexit-land” scenario in which the UK government’s promise to prevent a hard border is contradicted by its insistence that the UK will not be part of a customs union with the EU in the future.
The serious repercussions of undoing free trade and travel between the Republic and Northern Ireland through a hard border were raised repeatedly by members.
Diageo beverage company shop steward, Ryan Sutters, was one of many in attendance whose company sends products back and forth across the border.
Sutters told the conference, “We are a cross-border organisation. Our beer is brewed (in the Republic), sent over the border to us to be packaged in Belfast and then sent back to be delivered all over the world.
“I have no doubt that if there is a hard border our workplace will go down overnight. We can’t be caught sleeping on this.”
Sutter’s concerns were echoed by Unite members south of the border.
Jan Gallagher, who works for the Republic of Ireland’s business support agency Enterprise Ireland, said firms are facing a huge amount of uncertainty because Theresa May’s weak administration cannot form a workable position.
She said, “For the companies we’re working with there’s vulnerabilities around suppliers, vulnerabilities around customer bases, vulnerabilities around finances and the impact of currency fluctuations. We could see major job losses.”
Unite’s political officer for the Ireland region, Brendon Ogle, said it is essential the campaign against a destructive Brexit is stepped up during the second phase of the negotiations, with politicians and business leaders being made to heed the concerns of workers across Ireland.
“Our members are going to feel this. They’re going to feel it in their pockets, they’re going to see it in their communities, they’re going to see it in their daily lives. This can’t just be decided without discussion or debate in the corridors of government,” said Ogle.
“We need a conference in the border area where we can invite the rest of the trade union movement, where we can invite business and politicians from both sides of the border and challenge them. Unite is well placed to do so because it is our members in the north and south who will pay the price.”