Belfast Telegraph

Leave campaign is set for a narrow win, expert predicts

By Margaret Canning

Economist David McWilliams has predicted that the UK will vote in favour of leaving the EU - and that its economy will "do okay" afterwards.

The author, who has also previously claimed that a Brexit could precipitate a united Ireland, spoke at a debate organised by Feile an Phobail in west Belfast last night.

He dismissed claims by Remain supporters that a Brexit would see the return of border checkpoints between Northern Ireland and the Republic as "total baloney".

Mr McWilliams was joined at the event at St Mary's University by pro-Remain Michelle Gildernew, the Sinn Fein MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, as well as Leave campaigners Lee Reynolds of the DUP and businessman Irwin Armstrong.

Mr McWilliams said the pro-Brexit campaign was a symptom of the spread of nationalism around the world, from US presidential candidate Donald Trump to French far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

"When I hear English people agonising over Brexit, I think it's not just a UK issue but part of a movement in global politics. Nationalism is prompted by global forces," he said.

"If you are middle-class, you'll welcome immigration because it brings your laundry costs down, but if you're an electrician or a bus driver or tradesman, immigration is a threat in the jobs market and for your children getting places in schools.

"Brexit must be seen in the same context as Donald Trump or any sort of popular movement. It's based not on irrationality but real, legitimate fears.

"I believe the British economy will do okay. It's sufficiently large and sufficiently dexterous and has been semi-detached from Europe.

"I believe that by this time in two-and-a-half weeks, there will have been a Brexit vote by a small majority."

In that event, he said Scotland would press for another referendum, which would likely prompt a border poll in Ireland.

"Once you interfere with the gelling agent that binds nations together, it's hard to put together again. This Pandora's box could be open in the next few weeks."

Lee Reynolds described the referendum as "one of the great acts of a democracy".

He said countries such as Greece and Portugal had been crippled by the EU.

"They have been made to sacrifice to keep the political project going, and that is what you risk if you stay in," he added.

But Michelle Gildernew said the EU had played an important role in agriculture in Northern Ireland and in relations in her own constituency.

While she was Stormont's Agriculture Minister, she said her "biggest difficulty" had been Westminster's equivalent department Defra, and that the "biggest bogeyman" was the UK Treasury.

Ms Gildernew added her constituency had the biggest land border with the Republic.

"We were plagued by border controls for many years and roads were blown up," she said.

"We had no community cohesion. And it's only in the last few years that border controls have all been lifted.

"If there's Brexit, there will be some type of controls on the border."

Ms Gildernew also made a dire prediction about the future of farmers in Northern Ireland, claiming they would not receive the same support from Westminster that they currently get from the EU.

"Farming in Northern Ireland will have had its day if there's a Brexit," she warned.

Irwin Armstrong, whose company Ciga Healthcare makes 40% of pregnancy tests sold in the UK, described the EU as "sclerotic, archaic and belonging in the 1950s".

"I can't do any sensible business in the EU because of its protectionism and anti-competitiveness," he said.

The latest figures show exports to the EU from Northern Ireland fell 3.6% in the year to March 2016.

According to HM Revenue and Customs' regional trade statistics, exports fell from £3.589bn to £3.458bn.

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