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Northern Ireland realises Brexit would be like turning clock back

The message from the Belfast Telegraph/ Ipsos MORI poll couldn't be simpler: life without borders, barriers, tariffs and visas, as part of the world's single-biggest trading bloc, is better for business, jobs, trade, agriculture and travel, writes Tom Kelly.

Published 26/05/2016

Outside view of European Parliament building in Strasbourg
Outside view of European Parliament building in Strasbourg

As I sat down in my home to write my response to the Belfast Telegraph/Ipsos MORI poll, happy to see more evidence that the great majority of people in Northern Ireland are planning to vote Remain, the sun was setting to the west and there, in the shadow of the Cooley Mountains, just beyond the refurbished Victoria Locks, are the faded remnants of the long-gone Customs post on the Omeath Road.

Locals used to pass it when doing the Irish Lotto near there, and Belfast people know it en route to their holiday homes in Carlingford.

Those of an older generation will remember grannies smuggling butter and sugar during the war. Darker memories, too, of the Troubles never lurk far away. But looking across in the haze of a sunny evening, one can easily feel nostalgic about another age or era. It can bring a wry smile, but, then again, like the evening sun, it's a smile that soon fades.

There's a reason for this and it's best summed up by the American novelist Katherine Porter, who wrote: "The past is never where you think you left it." And at times the referendum debate seems a bit like that, with Leave campaigners harking back to a past that was never as rosy as it seemed. Here, in the new Northern Ireland with our new dispensation and now new Executive and new Opposition, the prospect of turning the clock back is anathema to the majority of our citizens and a betrayal of our young people to whom we promised so much. The Belfast Telegraph/Ipsos MORI poll shows that a two-to-one majority believes that Northern Ireland would be stronger by remaining in the EU. It reflects the fact that people in Northern Ireland understand the risk of leaving. They understand the economic security offered by remaining in the EU.

It isn't rocket science - unless you are a Leave fanatic or a fantasist. Independent commentary from the BBC's Reality Check and the CBI has proven that the Leave campaign's statistics for both the whole of the UK and Northern Ireland simply don't stack up. A reality check is now needed for those who are so ideologically driven to get out of Europe.

What was said of Prime Minster Harold Macmillan in the 1960s could well be applied to Boris Johnson in 2016: "Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his friends for his life." Bumbling Boris has his eyes on one job and he and others are prepared to sacrifice one in four ordinary Northern Ireland manufacturing workers to get it.

It's not surprising that pollsters still want to measure things in Northern Ireland along traditional divisions: Catholic, Protestant, nationalist, unionist. But this issue transcends religious or political allegiances - as our broad coalition of interests proves, with support from Sinn Fein, Alliance, UUP, SDLP, Green Party and the non-aligned.

This is, perhaps, where the message of the Remain campaign resonates with parts of the electorate not reached by polls. What is reassuring from the poll is that - despite the Leave campaign's attempts to drag us backward - many people are starting to climb out of the stereotyped segregated silos we are so used to.

The poll also shows that on gender balance there is remarkable agreement on the way forward - only one in five women and one in four men here believes that Northern Ireland would be stronger by leaving the EU than by remaining.

The message is simple: life without borders, barriers and tariffs and visas, as part of the world's single-biggest trading bloc, is better for business, jobs, trade, agriculture and travel. It's a positive message.

As one farming leader was reported as saying: "Leave campaigners invite you to jump over a cliff and then say let's build a plane on the way down."

The real meat in the Belfast Telegraph/Ipsos MORI poll comes in the answers given to the question: "Why would the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland be weaker if it left the European Union?"

Economic benefits are overwhelmingly in the top spot.

Quite right, too, considering that 61% of Northern Ireland's goods exports go to Europe, added to the very real threat of controls on the shared border with the Republic.

Warrenpoint Harbour announced only a few days ago that it would potentially face cutting half of its workforce if we left the EU.

Those surveyed also recognised the importance of EU investment to the funding of local projects and farming. More than £1bn has been pumped into Peace Programme funding in the last 10 years and more than £100m is still in the pipeline.

Some 87% of farm income here comes from the EU. This is real-time investment and there are no guarantees that the priorities of Northern Ireland will align with those of Westminster and competing regions.

Some Leave campaigners would have us believe that faceless Treasury mandarins would turn into a benevolent alms-giver, doling out largesse to Northern Ireland if only they didn't have to give money to the EU. Our experience contradicts that fairy tale.

Just look at Leave campaigner Theresa Villiers, who gave an emphatic No - not once, but three times - to Executive pleas to mitigate welfare cuts in Northern Ireland. Or her predecessor Owen Paterson, who, in 2010, responded to our First and Deputy First Minister's cry that the Treasury had welched on an £18bn deal and replied: "I don't know what planet they are living on!"

When competing with the needs of Shropshire and Chipping Barnet, Northern Ireland is at the back of the queue. Northern Ireland's MPs would be like Oliver Twist going to Fagin in the Treasury for help.

Perhaps the most striking part of the survey is the desire to remain within the EU by our young people. Gimmickry, pantomime antics and fear-mongering about immigration does not take them in. They are our future and I'm proud to see that they are confident, outward-looking and mobile in both thought and movement.

Over the past 15 years we have done so much to create a better future for them; one not to be eclipsed or stolen away by xenophobia or partisan politics - as my generation's was.

Their spirit of positivity, good sense and inclusion is Northern Ireland's greatest hope for a safe, strong and prosperous future.

As this survey shows, people here know that a vote for the future is a vote to Remain on June 23.

Tom Kelly is chair of Northern Ireland Stronger in Europe

Belfast Telegraph

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