Membership of the European Union has been hugely beneficial for Northern Ireland and critical in helping the transformation that our society has undergone since 1998. The SDLP is firmly and unambiguously campaigning for a vote to remain in the EU in the critical referendum vote, now fewer than 100 days away. We in Northern Ireland have a unique issue in the prospect of a land border with ROI, an EU state, in the event of an exit. The referendum debate is loaded with the historical and social implications of a hard border between North and South.
As a passionately pro-European party, the SDLP is highlighting the huge benefits that Northern Ireland has enjoyed as part of the EU. From agricultural support to peace funds, EU membership has left a very firm footprint on Northern Irish society but it is a contribution that can be overlooked by some. The challenge for those of us in Northern Ireland who are campaigning to stay in the EU is to highlight fully these benefits.
Voters in Northern Ireland face a unique issue on 23 June that voters in Britain do not in the form of the land border. The history of the border should alert us not only to the political and social implications, but to the barriers this presents to trade and investment between North and South. The Cabinet Office has warned that ‘it would be necessary to impose custom checks on the movement of goods across the border’, between Northern Ireland and its biggest export market in the Republic. Cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has progressed leaps and bounds in recent years, matched only by the ever-strong friendships in Anglo-Irish relations. Anything that poses inhibitions or barriers to these relationships – be it in trade or movement of people – is of grave concern. The Irish government share this concern.
To focus on one key area of trade: agriculture is a major sector in the Northern Ireland economy and our farmers rely on access to EU markets for exports and on EU support in volatile times. Our farmers receive more than £230m a year from the EU. That is before we consider the massive contribution we have received through research and development projects, cross-border projects and success of community peace programmes. Those who claim that EU payments can be channelled back into Northern Ireland’s economy place enormous faith in the British government to do so; a faith, I am sorry to say, I do not share.
Those of us on the ‘Remain’ side have been accused of peddling fear rather than dealing with facts: well the fact is that Northern Ireland faces enormous risks to trade, stability and North-South relations if the UK votes to leave. It is our due diligence to promote a fully informed and robust debate by publicising these risks, not scaremongering. Northern Ireland has benefitted and continues to benefit greatly from EU membership. For the economy, for trade, for jobs and for our relationship with the Republic: a vote to remain on 23 June is the best decision for everyone in Northern Ireland.
Alasdair McDonnell is member of parliament for Belfast South. He tweets @AlasdairMcD_MP
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