Brexit Uncertainty and the Northern Ireland Protocol: The consequences for Northern Ireland firms and their trade within the UK's Internal Market

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sussex
Department Name: University of Sussex Business School


Following the decision of the UK to leave the European Union, UK firms and workers have faced a period of economic uncertainty. Even though the UK departed at the end of January 2020, uncertainty remains, and this is particularly so for businesses in Northern Ireland (NI). Our research is aimed at studying two particular aspects of Brexit uncertainty and their impact on Northern Ireland.

Firms' production and exporting decisions might have been discouraged by the absence of clear information about future trading relations within the UK, between NI and Great Britain (GB), and externally with the EU and third countries. For businesses in NI a particular and additional form of uncertainty concerned the resolution of the Irish border issue - how to ensure that NI is included in the UK custom territory while avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This almost intractable issue finally led to the inclusion of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement, which de facto moved the border between the EU and the UK to the Irish Sea. The uncertainty in the negotiations, the uncertainty about how the Protocol will be operationalised, means that trade relations between NI and GB will have been affected and will continue to be affected. There will be direct effects from customs checks and possibly tariffs imposed on some goods transiting from GB to NI, and indirect effects from the uncertainty.

In the first part of our research we will examine how the uncertainty about the Irish border, in terms of the potential changes to the costs of trade with Great Britain from tariff and regulatory misalignment between the EU (and therefore NI) and GB, affected trade relations for firms based in Northern Ireland with Great Britain. In turn, we will examine how these changes varied depending on underlying firm characteristics such as productivity and foreign ownership. This will be undertaken in two phases - first focusing on the impact of uncertainty following the 2016 referendum up to the Brexit date (January 2020), and second, the impact following the UK's departure from the EU. We will also explore the extent of any trade by third countries to the UK, which may be diverted via NI, in order to avoid higher UK tariffs.

In the second part of our research we will examine how Brexit uncertainty might have affected NI and UK firms through changes in the availability of workers, in particular EU nationals, in the local labour market where firms operate. The potential post-Brexit working and residence restrictions for non-UK citizens, as well as the sterling depreciation and other negative macroeconomic consequences of Brexit, might have affected the decision of EU migrants to remain in the UK, or to relocate to other EU countries in search of a more secure living and job environment. EU migrants might be particularly sensitive to Brexit uncertainty, as they are, on average, more educated, younger and located in the UK primarily for work related reasons (as opposed to family reasons).

The changing composition of the UK labour force could impact negatively on firms, as drawing workers from a wider pool provides diverse skills and can offer resilience against negative economic shocks. There may be differential effects in NI relative to GB, partly because the Withdrawal Agreement establishes a different economic relationship between the EU and NI, and between GB and NI, and also because the share of EU migrants in NI is larger than the corresponding share in GB. In this second part, therefore, we will study how Brexit uncertainty has affected firms through migration. We will begin by examining how Brexit uncertainty affected firms' ability in filling vacancies. We will then examine how Brexit has affected the composition of the labour market in which firms operate, and finally, evaluate the impact of changes in such workforce composition on firms with a primary focus on their productivity.


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