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Will the tech sector be spared a hard Brexit? Maybe not

  • By Simon Whittaker, cyber security expert, co-founder of Vertical Structure

    At this point, with votes outstanding in Westminster, no one knows how Brexit will affect our lives, or our businesses, in Northern Ireland. It’s impossible to predict the future, and although there are certain outcomes that could be hugely beneficial for businesses here, the inability to plan for the future is problematic for us all.

    Who knows that the unique position of tech companies will be, in all this?

    From our perspective, much of our service-led business is within the UK. And what digital business isn’t global in nature, anyway? So we would hope that digital companies are more cushioned than industries to which I lend sympathies – such as agriculture, food production, large product exports, fast moving goods, science (research grants being mostly EU funded), etc.

    I can’t be the only person working in technology who thinks: “We’ll not be the worst affected.”

    But even so, we were not spared.

    It was disappointing to receive a letter stating that Vertical Structure (a cyber security consultancy) could no longer participate in the ERASMUS+ project, a direct result of Brexit. ERASMUS would have helped young people in NI gain an understanding, awareness and education about cyber security.

    ERASMUS is a programme, akin to a student exchange programme, that allows young people at different stages of education to travel to all corners of Europe – learning about different businesses. We’d been due to train this consortium on ‘ethical hacking’ – because if you can learn to break your own digital assets, then you can protect them. With cyber security being some of the most sought-after skills in IT today, these skills are massively important to share with young people.

    This particular ERASMUS programme was to be a meeting of the minds from all corners of the EU: with three organisations from the Netherlands, one from Belgium, two from Spain, Estonia and the UK – all offering expert, professional guidance.

    Having just applied and been accepted last week, the two UK organisations are already out of the programme, because, in their words “We have received some worrying signals…. regarding the impact of having two UK partners on board of this consortium, and the effect of this for the project when a hard Brexit / extended decision occurs.”

    It came as an unpleasant surprise – especially to see those words “hard Brexit” used to explain the loss of opportunity.

    It’s not just this setback that alarms us. Could this be a foreboding of things to come? Of a strange new world?

    Despite this step backwards, I remain hopeful that that the technology industry can rise above current political challenges.

    Shortly after I Tweeted about this issue, I received contact from two organisations in the Republic of Ireland who were very quick to show solidarity by asking if they could help. Even if governments aren’t showing us how to collaborate across borders, the good citizens of the world are doing it naturally.

    We should be engaging globally. We should be leading the way. We need to build bridges – not walls. Technology has helped to bring the world together – to make this planet seem a smaller place. It offers the opportunity for humans in developing areas to engage with those in the biggest cities in the world.

    I believe technologists can be leaders in this. Perhaps we can start by opening up the conversation about what we’re all facing.

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