Arlene Foster: It's time we took back the levers of power from EU bureaucrats
The Remain campaign's scaremongering about a Brexit threatening the peace process is deeply offensive to all the people of Northern Ireland. Vote Leave on June 23 to show the naysayers we're better than that, writes Arlene Foster.
Next Thursday, the United Kingdom will make an historic decision about its future. I have listened to the arguments on all sides of the debate and have reached the conclusion that the right answer is to vote to leave the EU and to take back control of our future.
It is a conclusion I have arrived at after full and careful consideration. It is a step I believe to be right, and I want to set out why I have reached this decision.
Firstly, there is the matter of the democratic principle. I am a devolutionist and believe decisions should be as close to the people as possible. The European Union is pulling power and decision-making further away. A return of powers would not simply flow to London, but to Belfast, too.
I believe in accountability. The decision-makers should have to answer to their voters. The unelected European Commission plays the central and decisive role in EU policy and law-making. European Court rulings can have far-reaching consequences for us.
The process of getting agreement between 28 countries and the use of qualified majority voting has given us a cumbersome process in which our interests can be - and often are - harmed.
This is not theory. Take just the most recent example - the new EU rules for ports. This will harm Belfast Harbour and jobs. It was opposed by our Government and our MEPs. It is happening anyway.
The European Court of Justice Azores ruling was a practical barrier to achieving the devolution of corporation tax to Northern Ireland. These decisions - made by others for us - affect our futures in ways we cannot see and cannot alter, because we are not in control.
When criticism is made, you either get denial, or an easy assurance that "it can be reformed, some day". However, those who present themselves as reformers have no timetable, no allies, no track record of success, no agreed proposals and no strategy to achieve it.
Meanwhile, those who want to push towards a new superstate have already produced their plans and want to create more common institutions, like an EU army. The golden opportunity to change was refused in the recent renegotiation.
Secondly, we have the matter of costs and benefits. The UK as a whole has been a net contributor. The difference between what we pay in and get back has quadrupled in the last four years.
In the past, Northern Ireland has done better, but three matters need to be considered. What we receive has been declining. For example, in 2014/15, we received £433m for agriculture and structural funds. In 2015/16, this fell to £321m - a drop of £112m, or 25%.
As the UK is a net contributor, it may have had an EU label when it came here, but it was still ultimately UK money. In the short and medium-term, the costs will continue to rise.
The EU mid-term review of its budget has been held back until after our referendum. Why? Most likely because, with an overspend of £24bn and a migration crisis still to deal with, the EU will need even more money. The UK would be expected to pay at least £2bn to fill the financial black hole. Alternatively, it will cut the existing budgets. In future, five new countries are queuing to join the EU and, as they do, the costs will increase and budget move more eastwards.
The primary benefits of our membership of the EU are presented as trade. It was sold to people as a common market, rather than a common state. However, this has become more of a promise than the reality.
The UK has a huge trade deficit with the EU. Globally, the EU is falling behind. The only continent with worse growth than continental Europe is Antarctica. The EU is not just holding us back, but many other countries, through its waste, bureaucracy and the straitjacket of the single currency.
Thirdly, I see the opportunities. Many commentators have asked how, as a former economy minister, I support voting to leave? It is because of my experiences that I believe it is the right choice.
I have been across the world and I have seen the opportunities that are out there for the taking. I have seen Northern Ireland businesses take them up. This fills me with confidence and the will to go after them.
I have also seen how power flowing down works best. The last Assembly produced its best-ever jobs record. This was not a coincidence. We were given the powers and we did something with them. This is how it will be for the UK. Our economic success in the future will be driven by what we do when the powers and monies flow back to us. I intend to use any powers and monies that flow to Northern Ireland to benefit us all.
This is why I am convinced that taking control of our future is the way forward for Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.
I must admit my resolve in this has grown and grown as the EU referendum campaign has developed. The Remain campaign as a whole, and how it has treated Northern Ireland in particular, has been the source of deep frustration on my part.
The Remain campaign has spread so many scare stories that I could fill every page of the Belfast Telegraph in response. However, what has angered me the most has been the purported threats to our peace because that is what it is - our peace. It is not the possession of one party, one government, or one campaign.
What has driven the process forward has been about the primacy of the ballot box. Our constitutional future will be decided only by the ballot box. With devolution, people in Northern Ireland have more power over their elected representatives than ever before, and we now have both a Government and an Opposition. This referendum holds true to that principle.
Finally, there is one threat to our peace process and one threat alone: those paramilitary organisations that remain intent on killing. They are a threat that our security forces deserve our praise and support for combating each and every day.
It is deeply offensive to present the people of Northern Ireland as ready to return to violence in the blink of an eye - especially over a democratic vote. I know, I trust and I wholeheartedly believe we are better than that, and those who have made such claims should know better, as well.
I believe in the people of Northern Ireland. I believe in the businesses of Northern Ireland. I believe in what can they can achieve.
This is why I reject the absurd predictions and exaggerated threats. This is why I look to our future and the opportunities after June 23.
This is why I am asking you to vote Leave.
- Arlene Foster MLA is leader of the DUP. ON MONDAY: Jim Nicholson MEP - Why EU's imperfections are best reformed from within