July 5th: Moving his union’s motion on the need for a coordinated response to the Brexit referendum vote at the Irish Congress of Trade Union’s Biennial Delegate Conference in Belfast, Regional Secretary Jimmy Kelly said:
On June 23rd of last year voters across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland voted in the most significant referendum since that of the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement.
This is a vote that will change our future irrevocably. And nowhere does Brexit pose more critical challenges than in Ireland, north and south.
Unite campaigned for a Remain vote, arguing that the best course open to us was to seek to reform the EU from within.
That was not an unqualified endorsement of the EU. Indeed, we were well aware that reform would be difficult and of the challenges associated with the corporate dominance of the EU structures.
But notwithstanding these concerns, our analysis was that Brexit could result in severe economic dislocation, not least in Northern Ireland.
We also feared Brexit could potentially initiate a race-to-the-bottom on wages and corporate taxes; and open the door to a rampant Tory party intent on tearing asunder workers’ rights.
A Tory government can never be trusted to negotiate Brexit or any other trade deals in the interests of working people.
We recognised that Brexit would strengthen those who seek to divide rather than unite.
We warned that narrow, backward-looking nationalisms offer no hope in a globalised economy where collaboration and connectivity are vital; where issues such as threats to the environmental or global poverty can only be dealt with through collective, international action.
Unfortunately nothing since June of last year has made us review that analysis. But there’s no going back. With the moving of Article 50 by the UK government, the UK will leave the EU by March 2019. The question is now what type of Brexit we will have.
There can only be one answer. Workers should not pay the price of a Tory Brexit.
Instead we seek a Brexit which,
- guarantees jobs and provides the free market access necessary to attract investment and sustain the growth of our indigenous industries;
- ensures no race-to-the-bottom on corporate taxes, whether by Westminster or the Belfast Executive;
- provides full access to international research initiatives and transnational funding streams; and,
- imposes curbs on greedy bosses who seek to exploit the threat of Brexit to suppress wages.
But Brexit is about more than the economy – it is about the daily lives of working people and communities on this island.
The threat of customs posts, of a militarised border, of tariffs and border checks has the potential to setback the progress made over the past two decades in Northern Ireland.
No one wants a hard border, but that may be what we’re facing if we don’t get the right agreement.
A hard border on this island would recall divisive questions that we have left behind – and it would offer the wrong answer to those questions.
We must be unyielding in our demand for tariff-free access between the UK and EU. This must be a priority for both the London and Dublin governments.
We don’t want a hard border, north or south, or east or west.
Restrictions to our common travel areas and the imposition of WTO tariffs to trade or the movement of parts and components anywhere on these islands will result in severe economic damage and threaten tens of thousands of jobs.
It is also vital that the human and workers’ rights guaranteed under EU directives are protected with a two-thirds parliamentary ‘lock’ to prevent the Tories using Brexit to ditch the rights fought for by working people.
The Good Friday Agreement imposes grave responsibilities on all parties to these negotiations. It was agreed at a time when both the UK and Ireland were members of the EU. Indeed, the agreement commits the UK government to introduce the provisions of the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law. There can be no derogation from that position.
Furthermore, the Agreement promised the introduction of a Bill of Rights specific to Northern Ireland. This longstanding and unfulfilled commitment, too, must now be fully delivered.
While we seek the best possible Brexit for working people, north and south, we must also consider why so many working-class people voted for Leave. It is undeniable that for many it was about migration.
More must be done for those many working-class communities that have been abandoned, and under-resourced in the face of pressures caused by large-scale migration.
We need real investment in jobs and in a more regionally-balanced economy; an end to austerity and additional funding for public services; legislation for a ‘rate for the job’ culture.
By stopping unscrupulous employers exploiting migrant workers, we can raise the floor for all workers, thus reassuring many working-class communities.
We must resist the threats posed by Brexit – and we must grasp the opportunities it offers.
Control over trade may make it easier to protect our critical industries from anti-competitive practice, to increase sales in new markets and secure growth through import substitution.
Brexit could enable a step-change in government intervention and deficit-financed investment; allowing state-aid or equity stakes in key industries and even the renationalisation of critical sectors.
While these outcomes would not be part of a Tory Brexit, they need to be fully explored, especially in regions like Northern Ireland which suffer from underinvestment and peripherality.
We need to secure every possible advantage to overcome the consequences of uncertainty and dislocation caused by the referendum result.
In Northern Ireland that requires a robust industrial strategy, but above all it requires political leaders willing to agree to share power and defend our interests.
We ask conference to support this motion and get involved in securing the best outcome for workers in all parts of these islands.