As last-ditch Brexit negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom appeared to end in frustration on Tuesday evening, and the likelihood of Britain crashing out of the bloc without a future trading deal in place grew, a senior civil servant warned unemployment in Northern Ireland could be set to skyrocket.
David Sterling, the most senior public-sector official in the province, said thousands of people will join line-ups at unemployment bureaus if the UK leaves the EU on March 29 without a deal in place that guarantees a close trading relationship.
"In effect, there is currently no mitigation available for the severe consequences of a no-deal outcome," he warns in an open letter to the province's political parties. "These consequences do not arise from the possibility of checks or controls on either side of the land border, but would simply be the direct consequence of the legal position that would apply. This point is well understood by the business community."
Sterling also said security could be undermined if a hard border is reestablished between Northern Ireland – which is a part of the UK – and the Republic of Ireland – which is an EU member.
"The planning assumptions include the possibility that, in some scenarios, a no-deal exit could result in additional challenges for the police," he wrote. The border was, in the past, a flashpoint for sectarian violence between factions that clashed over whether Northern Ireland should be part of the UK or part of a united Ireland.
Sterling said EU tariffs, which would be reintroduced in the event of a no-deal Brexit but avoided if a trading deal is agreed, would devastate Northern Ireland's farming and food-processing sectors.
His warnings came as EU negotiators and British officials sought solutions to issues that have stood in the way of British members of Parliament supporting the tentative post-Brexit trading deal agreed between British Prime Minister Theresa May and the EU back in November.
Chief among impediments is the so-called Irish backstop, which aims to avoid a hard border being reestablished on the island of Ireland by ensuring the UK continues to function as if it is part of the EU, until a free-trade deal can be negotiated. Critics say the backstop could tie the UK to EU rules indefinitely and want assurances from the EU that it would be temporary. The EU has not been able to offer such assurances.
While talks broke down after three hours on Tuesday,Reuters said the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, and the UK's Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, as well as the UK's attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, would resume discussions on Wednesday afternoon.
Despite the lack of a breakthrough on Tuesday, the UK's foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, told the BBC Britain is prepared to be flexible on the backstop, and he said there had been "positive signals" from EU leaders on the issue.
May, meanwhile, continued to try to build support for her draft Brexit withdrawal deal by offering MPs the chance in future to mirror EU workers' rights legislation.The move, which means the UK Parliament could adopt any new protections introduced on the continent and therefore stay aligned with EU standards, is being seen as an attempt to win support from Labour Party MPs.
The Trades Union Congress, which represents most of the UK's unions, responded by saying MPs should not be "taken in by blatant window dressing".
MPs are due to vote on the prime minister's reworked Brexit withdrawal deal by March 12.