Post-Brexit cross-border cooperation ‘vital for rural dwellers’

A year on from the Brexit referendum, the complexity of removing Britain from the union and unravelling 43 years of integration is becoming evident as the detailed work begins.

That is according to MEP and first Vice-President of the European Parliament, Mairead McGuinness, who was speaking in Dundalk last Friday, June 23, at a conference on Brexit called by the Bureau of the Various Interests’ Group of the European Economic and Social Committee.

She noted that while the EU side is well prepared, “the complexity of the issues do not appear to be as well understood on the UK side, with a continued determination to leave the single market and customs union, while wanting a close partnership with the EU and no return to a border on the island of Ireland”.

The MEP said last week’s negotiations appeared to reach a relatively straightforward agreement on the schedules and procedures, stating: “Sufficient progress has to be made on these matters before moving onto the question of the future relationship and trade talks.”

McGuinness noted that the Queen’s speech acknowledged some of the work ahead for the UK, announcing eight Brexit bills to transfer EU laws into UK legislation and to repatriate powers from the EU to the UK, including bills in areas that will be vital for Ireland and cross-border cooperation, such as customs, agriculture and fisheries.

The MEP underlined the potential problems Brexit holds for the continuation of the current effective cross-border cooperation on healthcare, noting: “If you were in Donegal today and you had a heart attack, an ambulance would take you just across the border into Northern Ireland, to Altnaglevin Hospital in Derry.

“That hospital provides primary angioplasty – the best treatment for a heart attack – and much more quickly than if a patient had to travel to Sligo or even Galway.

“But it’s not just emergency cases like that. Across the healthcare systems in Ireland and Northern Ireland, especially as both systems are under significant pressure and financial constraints, pooling resources means that high quality, specialist services are provided on an all-island basis,” she added.

McGuinness said over the past 20 years, there has been a significant expansion in this type of care – aided by EU funding administered by Co-operation And Working Together (CAWT); a partnership between health and social care services in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

As an example, the MEP highlighted Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Dublin as a base for the all-island paediatric cardiology service and the appointment of two additional ear, nose and throat (ENT) consultant surgeons in the border region of Northern Ireland who organise rotations at a hospital in the south, with patients from the Republic also able to go up north for more complex treatment.

Underlining the importance of this cross-border mobility, McGuinness said: “Both the UK and Ireland would like to maintain the Common Travel Area so Irish and British citizens will continue to have free movement across the islands.

In a deal this should be possible. But the Common Travel Area does not extend to EU citizens. So what does Brexit mean for an EU doctor who works in Northern Ireland but lives in Southern Ireland?

Mutual recognition of qualifications is another important issue with the vast amount of students from Northern Ireland studying in Dublin and Southern Irish studying in Belfast, the MEP stressed, noting: “There are medical students starting their courses or in the middle of their studies who do not know if at the end of their training, their qualifications will be recognised in their home countries.

“Health is an issue that’s most acute for Ireland – but it’s important for the rest of Europe as well. If some of the 10,000 EU doctors working in the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) choose to return home in the coming years, whether because of Brexit or other reasons, will the professional training they’ve undertaken in the UK continue to be recognised in their home countries?

This issue of mutual recognition of qualifications is particularly important in healthcare as so much training and education as doctors qualify and specialise takes place in outside universities and in work.

McGuinness added: “These are just some of the issues that will arise in one sector alone. We will have to come up with solutions. Not today, not tomorrow, but soon.”

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