Belfast Telegraph

Brexit a reckless shot in dark, truth is we all win by staying in

The notion that, in the event of EU exit, the Treasury will simply morph into a benevolent alms house, doling out largesse to our province, is not borne out by experience insists Tom Kelly.

When asked to chair the Northern Ireland campaign to remain in the EU I hesitated momentarily, because I couldn't believe a campaign would be needed to convince people of the obvious benefits to Northern Ireland from Europe.

Over the past number of weeks I have become more attuned to the babble and confusion that those arguing for a UK withdrawal have been deliberately peddling.

Rather than relying on a cogent and rational case, the Brexit campaign's every utterance is driven by irrational emotion and hubris against their fabled and favourite "Brussels bogeyman".

Each fact and figure produced by independent national and international organisations of repute on national security, immigration, trade or on the diminished influence of a UK outside of the EU is brushed aside with breathtaking arrogance, huffing indifference and bar-room swagger.

There is not even unity among the major advocates of a Brexit as to the consequences of the morning after the night before if a decision to leave the EU were taken. They either mislead the public to the truth, or simply don't know what would happen next.

So, let's look at the facts - starting with immigration. The fears about migration are often genuinely held, but usually skewed because of the scaremongering raised by Brexit followers.

The UK, like the Republic of Ireland, is outside of the Schengen Agreement and therefore the free movement of migrants does not apply within the UK.

Countries outside of the EU but in Europe, such as Norway, have had to accept the free movement of people in order to secure a trade agreement and there's no reason to imagine that we would get a different deal.

Norway also pays more per capita than us into the EU without having any influence in Brussels. Pay without say is not an option for us.

In fact when you look at what tight border controls would mean for Northern Ireland, it throws up some very serious questions.

Senior figures in the Brexit campaign and many neutral commentators acknowledge there would be a need for new border controls to stop immigrants using the Republic as an open back door to the UK. It stretches credulity to believe otherwise.

What we do know from past experience is that we're likely to see increased or special checks for Northern Ireland citizens travelling to and from Britain at both airports and ports.

Put bluntly, Northern Ireland would effectively become a second-class citizen within the UK.

And within the UK no region has more to gain from being a positive player in Europe and more to lose from exiting the EU.

The respected economic forecaster, Oxford Economics, showed Northern Ireland would be hit more than any other part of the UK by a Brexit because of its " ...unique characteristic of sharing a land border with another EU member state", as well as our economy being based around industry, agriculture and the public sector, which would be particularly vulnerable following a Brexit.

Think of the damage leaving the EU would do to the many small businesses trading with or exporting to the Republic.

And what of the businesses currently relying on free trade with France, Spain, Germany, Italy and any other EU member?

Northern Ireland exported £3.6bn worth of goods to the EU in 2014 - that's 61% of our total goods exports.

Risking that trade threatens to deal a huge blow to Northern Ireland's economy.

And, yet, still the Brexit campaign sells reckless uncertainty with gossamer-thin ideology and blasé claims.

Only last week a so-called "Brexit expert" told the media that "trade agreements could be renegotiated in a heartbeat". That is not optimism, it's naivety.

Canada, with its population of 36 million, has taken nearly nine years to complete a trade agreement with the EU and it's still not across the line, and this is despite the fact that the EU is its second-largest trading bloc.

But it's not all about the economy.

Something we all value is the benefit of something as simple the European Health Insurance Card, which gives us all peace on mind while on holiday.

And already the EU has provided over £1.5bn to the Northern Ireland PEACE programme since 1994, and it's earmarked another £150m for the next six years. Leave the EU and that funding will disappear.

And what about our farmers?

Agriculture is particularly important to Northern Ireland. We value our farmers and food producers.

The single farm payment makes the difference between going under and surviving for many in rural communities.

In the last 10 years the single farm payment totalled £2.5bn in Northern Ireland.

Direct EU payments to farmers represent 87% of annual farm income. Farmers' leaders across the UK have made it clear leaving the EU just isn't a viable option.

What we know about the benefits of EU membership, particularly here in Northern Ireland, outweighs what we don't know about life outside of the EU.

Consider that we have the experience of successive economic policies set by the Treasury. The notion that, after exiting the EU, it will morph into a benevolent alms house, doling out largesse to Northern Ireland, is not borne out by experience.

Let's act now in our own interests. Let's put Northern Ireland first. And let's do it together with one voice and as one community, because the outcome of this referendum affects you, whether you are a student, farmer, worker, employer, food producer, exporter, researcher, holidaymaker, or homemaker.

And when we're in, we all win.

  • Tom Kelly is chair of Northern Ireland Stronger in Europe

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