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Mike Nesbitt: EU Poll critical to Northern Ireland's security and prosperity

By Mike Nesbitt

Published 07/03/2016

The Ulster Unionists have decided to campaign for a vote to stay in the EU in the upcoming referendum on membership. Today, the party's leader explains why he thinks it's the best option for Northern Ireland.

THE RESOLUTION

The Ulster Unionist Party believes that on balance Northern Ireland is better remaining in the European Union, with the UK Government pressing for further reform and a return to the founding principle of free trade, not greater political union. The party respects that individual members may vote for withdrawal on the 23rd of June.

THE PRIME MINISTER

When we met David Cameron, we found a man pumped up with the adrenalin of the fight of his political life, yet also almost relaxed about the questions still awaiting convincing answers. After all, the referendum is still some 16 weeks away, an eternity in politics.

No one is accusing the local parties of dithering because they have yet to publish their manifestos for the Assembly elections, which come around six weeks earlier. So, of course we can expect twists and turns and 'events' between now and June 23.

I want to be clear about why I am recommending the UK remain in the EU. The Prime Minister talked of four baskets where he sought reform. I have six areas of concern.

EU FUNDING

The first is the money. It takes us into an area which affirms the old adage of "lies, damned lies and statistics".

You can probably counter-balance any set of stats regarding what we get back from our investment in the EU, but for what it is worth, I think there is no doubt Northern Ireland is a net beneficiary.

Think of the billions of euro secured specifically for Northern Ireland by Jim Nicholson, John Hume and Ian Paisley, when they persuaded Brussels of the need to bolster the peace process.

PEACE I became PEACE II, PEACE III, and now PEACE IV is getting ready to roll, huge sums, not for our farmers, but our voluntary and community groups, for our children and youth, for the fabric that knits our society together.

If there has been an unintended downside to PEACE monies, it has been that the NI Executive has not been aggressive enough in targeting competitive funds.

The last Programme for Government finally acknowledged the failure to compete with other nations and regions for open funding sources. The Executive set itself a target of a 20% increase in the drawdown of competitive funds - the political equivalent of holding a finger in the air to measure the wind. It was very easily achieved - 30%, 40%, maybe even higher, should be our next target. Why Brexit when we are just beginning to learn how to secure competitive funds?

CORPORATION TAX

I shall respect the confidentiality of the detail of our conversation with the Prime Minister, but suffice to say there was some incredulity from his team when the question of Corporation Tax under a Brexit was raised.

The Out camp seem to think that if we are no longer bound by EU regulations, the Azores Ruling on state aid can be ignored and we can have 12.5% corporation tax without a hit on the block grant.

Maybe technically, but it is clear the Prime Minister has no intention of selling a more favourable deal for Northern Ireland to Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland, or Carwyn Jones in Cardiff, never mind his own party colleagues.

Look at an electoral map of the UK and you will see the Conservatives are effectively a south of England party. Is David Cameron really going to give the MPs of the Ulster Unionist Party, DUP or SDLP a better deal than his own team? The reality should not be hard to fathom.

ACCESS TO THE SINGLE MARKET

There are a number of models for a non-EU member trading within the Single Market; the Norwegian, Swiss and Turkish. All come at a cost. Most will disadvantage trade in services, and this is critical, given the profile of our foreign direct investors in Northern Ireland.

But what is beyond logical debate is the fact that post-Brexit, the remaining 27 member states are not going to sit around a table and agree to offer the UK more favourable trading terms than they enjoy themselves.

LAND BORDER

I am old enough to remember the bad old days of internal travel between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, not least being isolated in a far corner of Heathrow with passengers to Israel.

Our land border is too long and complicated to seal.

We know that from decades of bitter experience. If we Brexit, there is no prospect of a Trump-like wall, but every reason to believe a return to a "hard" border will be required.

If it isn't along the geographical line that separates us from the Republic of Ireland, where will it be? It is likely to be at Stranraer and Liverpool and Heathrow and Gatwick and the ports and airports, as we return to those chilling old days of the 1970s.

WELFARE AND MIGRATION

This is a mess, but a fluid mess. Look at what was said and done in France in recent days and you see there is no certainty for the future.

I see one area of clarity. I want us to be a compassionate people. I see no reason why we cannot be compassionate to asylum seekers and refugees.

So far, we have taken only 51 Syrians. That does not place a visible strain on the PSNI, the NHS or any of our statutory services. Indeed, if there is tension with the new arrivals, it is because they are being offered a gold-plated service compared to our existing minorities, who rightly question why they are being treated less favourably.

The balance must be to help without threat or disadvantage to our own. Being in or out of the EU is not the real issue.

SOVEREIGNTY

I am not an unapologetic supporter of the European Union, but I am of the United Kingdom. I am also realistic enough to acknowledge that if the UK votes for Brexit, it is the end of the UK.

Nicola Sturgeon has already made clear her intention to force a second referendum on Scottish independence and I know of very few who believe the UK can withstand a second such challenge if the SNP are gifted such an opportunity through Brexit.

My question is simple: how can a unionist support Brexit when it clearly poses an existential threat to the future of the union they believe in? You can argue Ms Sturgeon will press the referendum button sooner or later, but I do not want my fingerprints on that button.

I do not think everything in the Brussels garden is rosy. I fully support further reform, aimed at a return to the original idea of a common market for the free trade of goods and services.

I fully oppose any further drive towards greater political union. That is counter-intuitive to our political journey here in Northern Ireland, where diversity is celebrated as a strength, not suffocated for some so-called greater good.

But the UK retains a massive degree of sovereignty already. We were not forced into the Eurozone. We did not have to sign up to the Schengen Agreement. The UK Government will put the interests of our people first in the future.

HEAD v HEART

As Chair of the Committee of the First Minister and Deputy First Minster, I have a role in scrutinising the work the Department undertakes regarding EU issues. Europe is one of a wide variety of matters that fall under the OFMDFM's remit and it is my impression we could collectively do more to study, analyse and understand what the EU does for us on a daily basis.

It is not just about money and the eternal debate about whether we are better off in or out.

There is the security of our country. Who does not think Vladimir Putin relishes a less united, stable EU?

If he had a vote, he would be first through the polling station doors on June 23.

Whatever happens over the next 16 weeks, it is critical that we use our heads not our hearts to decide, because the decision defines the future of Northern Ireland in its second century.

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