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Tory-led isolation from Europe's bounty simply not an option

Published 29/06/2016

Campaign posters around Belfast in the build-up to the referendum
Campaign posters around Belfast in the build-up to the referendum

The 56% of people in Northern Ireland who voted Remain in the EU referendum must have their wishes respected. Anything less would set back the peace process gains of the past 20 years, writes Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir.

As Finance Minister, I have spent the past six days working flat-out with every section of our society to ensure that our people are protected against the worst impacts of the Brexit crisis.

That has brought me into contact with unionists and nationalists, trade unionists and business leaders, community leaders and cross-border champions, Irish-American politicians and European diplomats.

I left all in no doubt that I would fight hard to have the Remain vote in the north respected and recognised.

But, equally important, I stressed that my immediate priority was to steady the ship and do my best to ensure that the chaos in London - utter confusion over exit negotiations, trillions wiped off the stock market, sterling in freefall, politicians tearing strips off each other - would not spread to the north.

I was determined to work with ministerial colleagues to get a firm grip on this crisis because, without steady leadership, we face further hardship with longer dole queues, higher emigration and a bleaker economic outlook.

That's why I look forward to today's Executive meeting at which our early response to Brexit will be assessed and more actions approved.

But even as I pledge to work with politicians from all sides to protect the interests of our people, I have no intention of pulling the wool over anyone's eyes: the reality is that research commissioned by the outgoing unionist Economy Minister concluded that, under every criteria, the north would be hit harder and longer than Britain by the post-Brexit recession.

Therefore, even as I vow to work to safeguard our interests, I will insist that the vote to Remain be respected. It's not often our society bridges the chasm between orange and green, but that's what happened last Thursday when a majority of people here voted to remain within the European Union. A failure to respect that firm mandate would subvert the democratic process and set back the peace process gains of the past 20 years.

I will defend our right to be at the heart of Europe - as we've been at least since the sixth century, when St Columbanus set out from Bangor Monastery to bring Christianity to the continent.

It would be a brave person indeed who would suggest we now turn on our back on Europe for the splendid isolation promised by a squabbling band of Tories in London.

In all of this work, of course, we will be looking towards the Irish Government to defend our interests and safeguard our right to remain in the European Union.

In the negotiations now looming, the northern Executive must have a central role, but equally we must be on the EU side of the negotiating table as well in the form of the Irish Government.

As Finance Minister I have taken steps to ensure we find a way through this crisis while putting the interests of the people we serve first. Contingency papers were presented to me at my request before the referendum - notwithstanding the fact that there is real difficulty in planning for a crisis on the unprecedented scale of Brexit.

But my departmental directors met again on Friday afternoon to take stock and to begin work on preparing papers for the Executive to advise on the steps needed to minimise the scale of this calamity.

I want to thank those officials at all levels who put their shoulder to the wheel on Friday to ensure we responded robustly, but calmly, to the aftershocks of the Brexit decision.

My department leads on EU funding - around £340m per annum has flowed into our coffers in the last three years alone; around €3bn (£2.48bn) since the start of the peace process.

I felt it was imperative, therefore, to speak with the director of the cross-border Special EU Programmes Body on Friday in the aftermath of the vote to assure her that it was business as usual in relation to funding applications.

With chaos engulfing London, I cannot say what lies ahead. For now we will push forward with cross-border co-operation, peace-building programmes and research initiatives all funded by the EU and insist our pledges be honoured in the more uncertain period post-2018.

I also spoke with the vice-president of the European Investment Bank, Jonathan Taylor, who stressed that recent loans to the Ulster University and to housing associations would proceed. But he, too, admits that we face into an unclear future and could give no guarantee of bank support for new projects post-Brexit.

Crucially, I spoke with my Scottish counterpart, Derek Mackay, to ensure we are walking in lock-step as we deal with the Brexit fallout.

Scotland has a government united in its opposition to Brexit and resolved unanimously to remain in the EU. That is not the situation here, where the two main parties in government - Sinn Fein and the DUP - were in different camps in the referendum.

But I believe that anyone who wants the best deal for our people from the British Treasury and in the negotiations around the UK leaving the EU will accept that working closely with Scotland is essential. Indeed, Minister Mackay and I will meet again on July 11 to co-ordinate our approach as we prepare to meet Chancellor George Osborne.

There is an irony in all this: since my appointment as Finance Minister I have been arguing for us to be masters of our own destiny - to borrow prudently according to our needs, to control corporation tax and air passenger duty, to operate at all times in the interests of Ballymurphy and Ballymena, rather than Bradford and Bristol.

Those who opposed that notion and suggest, instead, that we are better having decisions made by Mother England can see today just how calamitous an approach that has been.

The lesson is for us to control our own affairs and to take decisions in the interest of those who elect us.

Amid the gloom there was one shining light in the EU referendum vote: our young people, who voted overwhelmingly to Remain.

I urge those same young people not to be downhearted, nor to be forced from the path of creating a shared, diverse and prosperous society. We have come too far in this journey to be diverted into a cul-de-sac of splendid isolation.

It is my intention to ensure that they are not denied the bounty of Europe - no more than Europe should be denied the right to share this continent with them.

I urge our young people to keep their heads up and to work with me for a solution which will deliver for us an outcome which leaves us wedded to the rest of this island and at the very heart of Europe. Anything else would be a betrayal of their hopes and dreams.

And only a fool would dare build a society on the crushed hopes of our young people.

Belfast Telegraph

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