The Ireland-Northern Ireland Border corridor will be most impacted by Brexit, irrespective of what type of Brexit we end up with. Even if there were no Brexit, there would still be an impact. The impact will be on economic, political and social levels. Economists agree that despite the supports the Border region has received to date, it still lags behind the rest of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Economists also agree that Brexit will exacerbate this. Business in the region is less confident and more reluctant to expand as the future is so uncertain. Current developments at Westminster have compounded the problem. This has already been evidenced. Mr. Dan O’Brien, chief economist of the Institute of International and European Affairs, stated at a Brexit event in Dublin on 4 December 2018 that while employment growth overall in Ireland is good, employment in the Border region has faltered since 2016. While Brexit has highlighted many needs that already exist, it has also highlighted future requirements.
What has been the local authority response to Brexit? In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, once we all picked ourselves up off the seats, local authorities began a sustained lobby to highlight the needs of the people of the east Border region. It quickly became clear, however, that we needed to work with our colleagues along the Border because it is a Border issue, affecting the North and South. Especially with the absence of a government in Northern Ireland, local authorities along the Border felt it necessary to articulate and lobby for the needs of the 1 million constituents of the Border region. I hope members are all familiar with the report, Brexit and the Border Corridor on the Island of Ireland: Risks, Opportunities and Issues to Consider. It was commissioned by the 11 local authorities which make up the Border corridor. Facilitated by EBR, this report brought together the chief executives of the councils and clearly identified that the economy of the Border region lags behind the economies of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It also outlines that the Border will be most detrimentally affected by Brexit.
What were the recommendations of the report? We need to address the structural weaknesses in the Border region. Also required are the upgrading of transport and broadband infrastructure, which would assist with connectivity in the region, and ongoing business support measures to assist businesses in preparing for and dealing with the impact of Brexit. The majority of businesses in the Border corridor are small. Many are microbusinesses, with fewer than ten employees. They do not have either the money or time to prepare for what they believe might happen as a result of Brexit. The uncertainty will see many of them go to the wall.
Also important are a focus on relevant skill levels in the region and some kind of Brexit transition programme along the lines of a territorial co-operation programme to assist the Border region to adapt to the challenges of Brexit. This needs to be broadly based because Brexit will affect every sector. I do not believe we care who provides funding, but the continuation of the EU-type funding programmes, or alternative funding programmes, is required. I refer to the broad range. We are most familiar with INTERREG, the cross-Border group, the PEACE programme, Horizon 2020, the rural development programme and Erasmus. We will lose a raft of programmes in Northern Ireland.
We believe in the east Border region. Members will have heard Mr. Hatch say we have always been ready to adapt to the particular challenges of the Border. We need new policy, new thinking and new methods of co-operation and partnership between local authorities in conjunction with central government in both the Republic of Ireland and Belfast. That is important. It is essential for Border management to work in the wake of Brexit.
To date, the majority of the funding that has come to the Border region through cross-Border initiatives has been from Europe, not the Government. There has been some funding from the South but nothing really from Northern Ireland. The money that has come in through the INTERREG and PEACE programmes, which are cross-Border programmes, has come from the European Union. Both Governments could argue they match funding but the impetus and drive have been from the European Union to date.
The 11 Border local authorities now want to work with both Governments to develop and propose creative solutions for Border management. Local authorities along the Border wish to develop a bottom-up, needs-based strategy for the Border corridor to offset the challenges and identify any opportunities associated with Brexit. One should bear in mind that there are members in the Northern Border council areas who believe there are opportunities. We must take the mandate of all those elected representatives. As local authorities, that is what we will do. This fresh strategic approach should be endorsed by both Governments to support the Border region practically. This is not about airy-fairy considerations.
This is about what we require practically. The strategic work will build on the report. Tomorrow we will meet chief executives from along the Border and officials from the Department of the Taoiseach and the Northern Ireland Executive to drive this forward. We want to use this to establish priorities for action. We need to engage with local stakeholders, social partners and business. It is needs based and must take account of the people of the area.
Implementation structures and sources of funding are very important. While local authority staff and elected members have the knowledge and commitment at local level, some aspects of the work may require a more regional approach. Issues may be identified that can best be tackled at Border corridor level. There may also be issues that are particularly pertinent to the east, central Border or north-west region. The strategy we are commissioning as we speak will identify these. We will have requirements along the Border corridor and at high level, and within these we will have priorities in each region.
High level support and commitment from both Governments is essential if this approach is to be successful. Existing local authority cross-Border groups, including ICBAN, ourselves and the North West Region Cross Border Group, are well placed. We have a proven track record in co-ordinating, facilitating and managing dedicated interventions in respect of this approach. To be carried out, it also needs to be led at top level, as this approach is, by the chief executives of the 11 local authorities but they require the resources to do this. In my view, the solution suggested by the Border corridor local authorities, which is bottom-up, needs based and driven and delivered locally has the best opportunity for success.