QUB’s School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy (PSIP) together with Policy Engagement at Queen’s organised a discussion on Northern Ireland and the EU Referendum: What are the Issues?
What should the UK government be seeking in its renegotiation of the terms of EU membership? What are the key issues for any debate on whether to remain in or to leave the EU? What would the implications of a Brexit be for Northern Ireland? Where do Northern Ireland’s interest lie?
Declan Lawn chaired the discussion, with short contributions from four panellists before opening up for questions and answers from the floor.
Danske Bank economist Angela McGowan explained that when selling Northern Ireland and encouraging firms to open bases here for Foreign Direct Investment, having a foothold in Europe and the European market is an important consideration. While the UK is a net contributor to Europe every year (except 1973), Angela spoke about also spoke about grants, subventions and opportunities for all-island trade unencumbered by border posts and the EU’s role in peace and reconciliation. The UK could no longer rely on the EU’s wider bilateral trade agreements. She summed up her vision of the UK’s best relationship with the EU: “friends with benefits”, though stopping well short of monetary union.
Dr Mary Murphy lectures on Northern Ireland’s relationship with Europe at University College Cork and she placed the discussion. That relationship has changed and evolved since the UK joined in 1973. Hostility to Europe has grown in recent years, along with a growth in political parties reticent about our membership of the EU contesting elections. Issues around national sovereignty, identity and the future make-up of the UK play into the discussion. The Scottish Government has a position on European reform; however, the cross-party nature of the NI Executive seems to make it impossible for a local policy to be agreed and argued. She described the NI party manifesto positions on the EU as “quite vague”
Dr Cathal McCall from QUB’s School of Politics talked about the effect on borders a British exit from the EU. The debate is largely driven by opposition to the free movement of labour across Europe as well opposition to migration into Europe. He considered three different border strategies – a hard Irish border (disastrous for nationalists), a hard border around Great Britain (problematic for unionists), and a hard border around the whole British Isles – as well as the likelihood that the Brexit and Scottish Independence campaigns could become intertwined.
Dr Lee McGowan lectures on politics at QUB. He suggested that the odds are shortening for a September 2016 referendum so by this time next year we’re likely to have decided. The “glory days” of grants are over for Northern Ireland. Yet CAP continues and the agri-food industry – important for local economy and employment – might ask if the UK left the EU would the Treasury pay the same level of grants to farmers? He articulated a long list of possible implications that are, as yet, far from the debate in Northern Ireland. Would the non-EU students at NI universities dry up? These students key to diversity as well as university funding. How does the public feel about their current ability to seek employment anywhere in EU? Is this valued? How does the West’s deteriorating relationship with Russia affect a Brexit vote? Overall, Lee says he’s less certain of how the UK will vote than he was. But the level of debate about Brexit within NI is not encouraging.
Forty five minutes of questions followed. If the panel were betting people, would they bet on UK exiting the EU? No. No. No. No.