Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

An EU exit would be felt hardest far from Westminster

Theresa Villiers
Theresa Villiers

The Conservative Party met in Manchester this week with a spring in its step. The city is not known for its temperate climate, but the sun shone on the Tories, as ministers chanted their mantras – hardworking people, an economy on the mend, and a Labour Opposition that seems to be falling in love with socialism all over again.

Even Boris Johnson was on-message, telling a packed conference hall on Tuesday how proud he is of his new London buses, made in Ballymena.

Britain's place in the EU – so often the party's poisoned apple – was pushed to the margins this year. Ukip leader Nigel Farage, banned from the conference by Tory high command, cut a forlorn figure on the fringes.

David Cameron has calmed his eurosceptics by committing himself to a referendum on EU membership in 2017, after he has negotiated a new deal for Britain.

But what if the people vote to leave the EU? Withdrawal could have particular consequences for Northern Ireland.

The importance of Britain's trade relationship with the Republic was underlined by the Irish Ambassador to Britain, Dan Mulhall, at a reception he hosted at the Manchester conference.

"Britain is Ireland's number one export market and Ireland is the number five export market for Britain, which means that hundreds of thousands of British jobs are dependent on the success of British companies exporting to Ireland," he said. "And long may it continue."

Trade – and a London-based great-grandmother – are strengthening a relationship already close because of the peace process. "We have never had a period in our history where the skies over British/Irish relations have been so clear and positive," Mulhall said. "Her Majesty's visit helped to dispel the last remaining clouds that covered our relations."

Dublin and London are already talking about common visas for visitors, who want to visit both sides of the border, and joint trade missions.

However, cross-border trade would undoubtedly be complicated if Britain decided to leave the EU.

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers (below) backs the PM's "get Ukip" renegotiation and referendum strategy, but she acknowledged in Manchester that the economy – not security, or the peace process – "is at the heart of our working relationship" with Dublin.

She told a fringe meeting on Tuesday: "The recovery in Northern Ireland is still the slowest of any UK region, with economic inactivity and benefit claimant counts significantly higher than elsewhere.

"And, of course, the Northern Ireland economy remains particularly sensitive to what happens in both the rest of the UK and the Republic of Ireland."

However, Villiers has spotted "some tentative signs that the economy is turning a corner".

"As the Ulster Bank PMI index for August pointed out, business output growth is at a six-year high, broadly based across all sectors of the economy, but especially strong across the retail and service sectors."

Her "cautious optimism" is to be commended. Let's hope her risky referendum policy doesn't lead to a new economic border, with Northern Ireland outside the EU.

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