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EU referendum: 'We're sleepwalking towards decision to leave', warns economist McGowan

By John Mulgrew

Northern Ireland voters are "sleepwalking" into a decision to leave the EU, an economist has warned.

Danske Bank's Angela McGowan told an EU debate last night that she is "worried the vote will go the wrong way" and there will be a vote for Brexit.

"I do fear that we are sleepwalking into this... people are not fully informed," she said.

Business leaders and economists argued the case for and against Brexit with just a week to go before the vote on June 23.

The event heard from one member of the audience, who said a US investor had shifted a planned visit to Northern Ireland to the Republic instead, after learning of the upcoming Brexit vote.

And investment fund boss Colin Walsh, who has backed some of Northern Ireland's fastest growing technology firms, says he "would be out of business" in the event of Brexit.

Responding to a comment during an EU referendum debate chaired by broadcaster Jim Fitzpatrick and hosted by Ulster University Business School, Mr Walsh of Crescent Capital, said Brexit is "blowing both our feet right off".

"It would cripple investment," he said.

But arguing the case to leave, Ciga Healthcare boss Irwin Armstrong, said the EU was "anti-competitive and protectionist".

He said his business, which produces pregnancy tests, was "effectively removed" from selling into the EU, due to the difficulties in deals with pharmacies in countries such as France.

Mr Armstrong said he wants "complete liberalism" in the global market.

"There is a big world out there," he said.

He said the quality of some factories in places such as China was also now of a higher standard than those produced in the EU.

"If we go out to negotiate as the UK... it is one-to-one, and that makes life a lot easier."

Speaking about grants, Mr Armstrong said he believed companies should stand by themselves in the long term.

He said there was a "misconception" about how border controls work.

"We are now concentrating on selling into the EU because it is seen as easy," he said.

But ex-CBI chairman Mr Walsh said: "From that standpoint I think Crescent Capital would be out of business. All three venture funds have had considerable EU funding.

"I would be out of a job. Crescent's demise would also mean (the same) for the private sector economy."

Ms McGowan said: "I do believe Northern Ireland is better off in the EU."

"There is no doubt about it that Brexit would bring uncertainty. I fear if we were to leave the EU, there isn't a Plan B."

She said the economic debate had been won by the remain campaign.

Ms McGowan said "we are already seeing the impact" of uncertainty.

And Mr Walsh said: "If we choose to take back control of laws, and regulations that are administered in EU, it wouldn't be a zero sum gain."

He said "both sides have been particularly negative" in the debate.

But he said he "can't buy the argument" that exports would improve outside the EU.

Belfast Telegraph

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