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At its best, the EU is a foil against hostile nationalism and we know in these parts how deadly that can be

Over the coming four months, the Brexit debate will tease out the merits or otherwise of the UK remaining in the European Union.

Whether the decision is to leave or to stay, it is worth remembering that, whatever the arguments, the EU has managed to maintain good relations between countries and peoples with a significant history of conflict.

It was no mean achievement in the circumstances, and it demonstrates a determination not to allow the consequences of past actions to affect succeeding generations. That's something which resonates in Northern Ireland.

The EU managed to remove borders in essence without removing them in fact, and there is no better example than this island. It replaced a sense of threat from other European nations with a sense of interdependence.

At its best, its ethos offered the possibility of long-term peace, stability and relative prosperity, for Europeans, both those inside the EU and those outside it.

Its founding principles could equally be applied outside the Union's borders.

One risk to the evolution of these principles is the destructive power of exclusive nationalism and the people who ignore its dangers. Another is a drive for ever increasing federalism, rather than maintaining a comfortable equilibrium as regards relationships between the EU's member countries.

It is a challenge to get the balance right, and the EU is at its best when it seeks to embrace inclusion while also recognising and respecting difference.

I return again to Ulster poet John Hewitt on the complex and multi-layered character of identity. He described himself as a Belfast man, Ulsterman, both Irish and British, and those were interchangeable, as well as European. And "anyone who demeans any one part of me demeans me as a person," wrote Hewitt.

These words encapsulate who we are in Northern Ireland, and how the European element fits into the picture. We're constitutionally part of the UK, as determined by the principle of consent, but geographically we are part of the island of Ireland. Our Britishness and our Irishness can comfortably be inclusive of one another, as opposed to the exclusive ways in which they have too frequently been defined and promoted in the past.

Finally, we are European, whether we remain inside or outside the EU. However, the European identity is certainly deepened by the sense of inclusion which underpins the Union.

It is a complex, but rewarding picture which can accommodate comfortably our increasingly diverse society.

Not all the benefits of the EU vision are measurable, but we should be careful not to unwittingly undermine them. We paid a heavy price in this small part of the world, as people who promoted exclusive concepts of identity, and nationality destroyed our relationships. We should learn from our history and Europe should always keep its past in mind too.

Trevor Ringland is a former Ireland rugby international, Ulster Rugby player, and former NI Conservatives co-chairman

Belfast Telegraph