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Belfast Brexit debate: Big-hitters Owen Paterson, Kate Hoey, Vernon Coaker and John Stevens sharpen their arguments ahead of debate on EU membership

By Yvette Shapiro

Some of the biggest political names in the increasingly heated EU debate will air their opposing views at a major business event in Belfast next week.

The former Conservative Secretary of State Owen Paterson will line up alongside Northern Ireland-born Labour MP Kate Hoey to put the case for a Brexit, while Labour's Vernon Coaker, currently Shadow Secretary of State, and former Tory MEP John Stevens will argue that Britain should remain a member of the European Union.

Around 150 people, including business leaders in manufacturing and service companies, entrepreneurs and farmers have signed up for the Big EU Business Debate at the Northern Ireland Science Park on Monday evening. It will be live-streamed online throughout the UK and the Belfast Telegraph will host a live pre-debate discussion with key speakers and guests.

Ms Hoey, Labour's most prominent Eurosceptic, is co-chair of Labour Leave. She is a harsh critic of the EU and has challenged those in the remain camp over what she sees as "scare tactics". Writing in the Daily Telegraph recently she said: "Familiar voices try to scare us into believing that leaving the EU would ruin the UK, but these are the same people who told us that we had to join the euro or face disaster.

"We stayed out of the euro and have therefore been spared much of the chaos of that unsustainable currency - but we still give £7.3bn net a year of our money to the EU."

At the event in Belfast on Monday night, she'll be going head to head with her party colleague Vernon Coaker who's a firm supporter of the argument for Britain's continued membership of the EU. He said: "The EU has delivered investment and jobs to the UK whilst also securing important protections for workers, consumers and the environment."

Mr Coaker will be supported in his pro-EU argument by former Conservative MEP John Stevens, a senior research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute, while the Leave camp's case will be championed by Owen Paterson, the former Tory Environment Minister who was previously Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Along with the current NIO Secretary Teresa Villiers, Mr Paterson has become a key figure in the Brexit camp, branding the Prime Minister's concessions gained from the recent EU summit as "very disappointing". The Big EU Business Debate will be co-chaired by Angela McGowan, chief economist at Danske Bank, and Jeffrey Peel, managing director of the consultancy firm, Quadriga.

Mr Peel, a former vice-chair of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland and a declared "Brexiteer", said he hoped the event would highlight the key economic issues at stake in the EU referendum vote.

"We have to think rationally about what is best for the UK," said Mr Peel. "There are good arguments on both sides of the EU debate and it's important that people hear the facts and make their decision based on economic grounds. There's a unique opportunity for voters in Northern Ireland to focus on issues that are not sectarian in any way."

The event's sponsors are Equiniti Group, Danske Bank and the Federation of Small Businesses.

Belfast Telegraph