In-between the first and second EU Debate NI events, David Cameron came back from Europe with his negotiated deal and the EU referendum was set for Thursday 23 June.
This afternoon’s discussion was hosted in QUB Student’s Union. Academics and politicians made two minute pitches (some sticking to the time better than others) before the audience broke into smaller groups to discuss issues of interest with a election of the speakers.
You can listen back to the eight sets of opening remarks. Politically David McNarry had remarkably little of substance to offer in his comments to persuade people to vote to leave, though his emphasis on listening and the need for the public to be informed is to be welcomed. Christopher Stalford took a much more nuanced and non-dogmatic view: the EU was neither all good nor all bad, but on balance was worth leaving. Declan Kearney called for a civic movement to campaign to remain, while Duncan Morrow spoke of the effect of borders and education, and Claire Hanna framed the value of the EU in terms of problems that don’t stop at borders and require cooperation.
On balance, a much more insightful set of contributions that I’ve heard so far in this campaign.
Dr Leslie Budd (Open University). I think the debate so far has been very narrowly focussed on budgets and trade and the reporting from Westminster has been like an episode of the Simpsons with the politics being like Sideshow Bob and the economics like Homer! I don’t want to focus on that. I want to talk about the wider issues of education and culture and the kind of integration that gives us. This referendum is really crucially important for Northern Ireland given all island cooperation and the opportunities and for the younger generation this is a life-changing decision. Governments of all persuasions have let young people down with respect to payment for education and employability. My concern with a Brexit is that – and I am pro-EU – is that it reduces opportunities for younger people and their employability over the long term in the UK, but particularly in Ireland which like Scotland of people leaving and coming back again, and that instability and that uncertainty is what concerns me. I didn’t want to talk abut economics, because as we know economists tend to be miserable by profession and I didn’t want to follow in those footsteps, even though I’m an economist!
Hugo MacNeill (chairman of the British-Irish Association). I was up here a couple of years ago when someone tried to organise a similar conference and I think about 5 people turned up to the session on Brexit. And I remember thinking at the time” do people up here understand what the issues are and effect not just things like trade and economics but people’s lives? Three points strike me. A House of Commons Research Library report looked at the impact throughout UK of a Brexit and it said that between 2007 and 2013, €1.5bn was transferred for projects in Northern Ireland. Secondly it said that trade would be harder hit in NI than anywhere else in the UK. And trade is not just an abstract concept but relates to people’s jobs. The Institute of European Affairs in Dublin did a great study about Brexit and includes an essay by John Bradley on what might happen to Northern Ireland. Whereas Britain could survive quite well it would be much more challenging here. Thirdly, the Good Friday Agreement is laced through with references to both Britain and the Republic of Ireland being part of the EU, and the fact that that would change would have big implications. As someone from the PSNI said to be a few years ago at the British-Irish conference: “it’s hard enough for us dealing with flags, parades and all these other issues, but if they put up border controls I’m out of here”. The last time Britain had a debate about the EU back in 1973 the issue people cared about was the economy and jobs and would we be better off. In a recent survey, the biggest thing in the UK is migration. It’s an important subject for Europe, but is it the most important subject for you growing up in Northern Ireland. You’ve got to wonder whether if UKIP hadn’t emerged in the last couple of years, would we be having a referendum that has such profound consequences for the UK? Lastly, this isn’t just about Brexit. The British-Irish Association has been looking at the potential changes in the UK: Scottish [Independence] referendum vote, English votes for English laws, the rise of English nationalism. Brexit will have a big impact … Massive potential changes that will not just affect people in abstract ways but affect the lives and futures of people in this room and people out there in the most vulnerable and marginalised communities.
Prof David Phinnemore (head of QUB School of Politics). No one can be clear or certain on what a post-Brexit world would be. There are lots of promises being made by the Out campaign, but I’m not sure that these can be guaranteed. Indeed we may believe some are false promises. On trade, what deal will be secured with the EU? What deal or deals with others? What will those deals look like? When will those deals be agreed? There’s a huge time dimension to this. Lots of unknowns creating uncertainty. There’s also uncertainty round funding. What will happen to CAP funding for farmers? What will happen to funding for education exchanges, to research for industry and universities, for cross-border collaboration, energy infrastructure projects, transport infrastructure projects, peace building, cross-border cooperation more generally. They may not be huge amounts but in an NI context they touch a lot of people. Sovereignty is a word often used in the context of European integration: whether we’ve lost it, we’re pulling it, we’ve surrendered it. There’s a variety of different views. If we leave the EU, what say will we have on matters that affect us? Yes some powers will be returned to the national and regional parliaments. But we will be outside probably the largest decision making body in the world, the European Union. We will be affected by what the EU does, but what influence if any will we have over it? What influence will we have over the relationship which the UK secures with the EU? Will we be like Norway and Switzerland? Attractive on the one hand – rich countries – but they are policy takers not policy makers. They sit on the outside. Secondly, why do we want to be in the EU? It’s a far from perfect political entity. It has its flaws: name me a political system which doesn’t have its imperfections, whether local, regional or international. If you’re in, you can help change it. If you’re on the inside you can do plenty more, you’re shaping the EU. You’re involved in cooperation. You’re involved in the largest market in the world. You’re promoting interdependence, you’re promoting understanding and awareness and opportunities. You’re enjoying free movement and tackling shared problems of the environment, discrimination, market domination by multi-nationals – can national governments really stand up to Microsoft and Google? You’re providing gender equality. You’re also providing security: political and economic and societal security. I’d argue that the world is probably too big for any state to address all these issues on its own.
David McNarry (UKIP). Without UKIP, without Nigel Farage, we wouldn’t be having this debate. In 1975 I took the decision – then – to vote to go into Europe and into the Common Market. And I felt very privileged being given that opportunity. Some 40 years later we’re all going to get that opportunity, and I hope it’s an opportunity to rethink. I’ve rethought it. It was a disaster. It was a mistake. The timing [of the referendum] is not the best as we also have a Stormont election. Which one do you put as the priority and the most important is a matter for you. Much as I would like to separate them, they are in tandem. What we need to do is see how we can merge them and I hope that we will be able to merge them in the discussions that will decide people which party they are going to vote for for the Assembly and for how they are going to vote Yes or No in the referendum. I think we’ve got to be very, very careful not to allow this debate to become stale. I think [the result] will be close. I don’t believe that NI will vote to stay in. I just can’t concede that to anyone. There is nothing in our interest to stay in Europe, to be dominated by Germany and France and to have the wandering hoards of people coming here and all over the UK to access some kind of room where there isn’t room. Those debates are going to be very topical and I hope we will have an exemplary debate in NI and address those issues.
Duncan Morrow (Alliance). We’re extremely in favour of staying in the European Union [and] take nearly the opposite position of David. In our view the EU is one of the most important developments in Western European history. Before 1945 there were three wars which cost the lives of millions and millions of people. [We] have lived through a period of peace and prosperity that is unparalleled in European history. To start rocking that boat is extremely dangerous. In 1939 Europe was the Middle East of the world. We are now the most peaceful and prosperous part of the whole globe. Looking locally, within the context of the EU, Britain and Ireland have come together closer together as partners than ever historically. Cooperation over all kinds of infrastructure projects, over security, over issues like agriculture and tourism have become everyday practice to all our benefits. The thing which improved security here was cross-border cooperation and a new set of principles that aligned us on an international basis. It’s absolutely madness in Northern Ireland to start talking about re-erecting borders. It will be catastrophic for us internally and set us on a path which is not necessary … The introduction of custom posts. Are we going to talk about shutting down border roads again? Do you think that won’t have internal consequences for NI? This is really deadly serious. [On education] Erasmus is a huge programme of huge importance for the cultural development of this place. Talk about a backward and inward looking region? If we want to be an outward and forward looking region it’s all about how we connect culturally. The immigration debate is totally misplaced on this island. There is no other part of the western world where more people are emigrant as a proportion of the native born population than the island of Ireland. That’s a statistical fact. We are the people who move most across the world … it’s been critical to changing the entire atmosphere on this island as people who have been away have come back here. Opening the mind is not a bad thing …
Declan Kearney (Sinn Féin). This is a watershed debate and decision. it needs to be seen in the context of the evidence. When you make your decision on the 23rd June the only way to approach this is discussion is on the basis of strategically stress-testing the political and the economic evidence that is set before you. From a Sinn Féin point of view, this island’s place is in Europe. This region’s place is in Europe. We face a market of 500 million citizens across the European mainland. The implications of all of that for progressive and future trade deals and exports phenomenal. But not just in the context of the European continent in itself. We’re a strategic gateway for foreign direct investment. Since 2006, the Executive has secured and promoted 27,000 inward investment positions – new posts, new work, new jobs – as a direct result of our relationship within the European Union. And most of that employment has come in from North America … securing planned investment of £3.25 billion. Our membership of Europe gives us access to Asian and other markets far beyond our wildest dreams. And that’s all key to how we regenerate and grow and develop the regional and island economy. The exit agenda itself is entirely bound up with the internal management of ideological tensions within the British Conservative Party. It’s driven by ‘little Englander’ perspective, driven by isolationist thinking, it’s about cutting ourselves off from what we have now become an integral part of being. In terms of the Europe that I would envisage us all benefitting from, what we have is imperfect, but there is an opportunity to develop and grow the agenda of a social Europe and that’s where our primary focus needs to be. So Europe has been good in terms of workers’ rights, democratic rights, human rights, it’s good in terms of progress … The economic relationship we enjoy with the EU is strategic. Since 2007 up to 2013, it’s estimated that 10% of the regional economy’s GDP was linked to European transfers. That’s phenomenal for a small regional economy like ours here in the six counties. We are net beneficiaries – don’t be told differently – in terms of the finding we’ve enjoyed since 1995. Since 1995 the northern economy and the six border counties have attracted from the EU €5.64billion in terms of PEACE 1/2/3/4 funding as well as InterReg funding plus the net benefits of social funding. Who is going to replace that funding in the event that a decision is taken to remove this regional economy from the EU Are the Tories going to pick up the tab? I don’t think so. Finally, exit has huge implications which re intangible, but also concrete. The EU has played a central role in the development of our peace process. It’s been key to the stability of the political institutions. And it’s been key to ensuring that the rights that have been defined in the context of the European experience have influenced the character and architecture of the Good Friday agreement. So an exit poses a threat to the continued endurance of the rights we enjoy and can appeal towards under the framework and the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement. What we need facing into this agenda is a civic platform of like-minded members of civic society, businesses, trade unionists, political parties and local communities. What we need to do is make the positive case: staying in Europe is about cooperation, social and economic solidarity, it’s about rights that you and I should not take for granted but continue to enjoy, it’s about investment, it’s about prosperity, and most important of all, in terms of the social Europe, continued and ongoing reform.
Christopher Stalford (DUP). Like most people we as a party awaited the outcome of the deliberations that the Prime Minister had with the other European leaders and we then made a judgement based on upon what he said he was trying to secure and what he actually has secured. The Prime Minister assured us there would be treaty change and fundamental alteration in the relationship between the UK and the EU. When the Prime Minister’s package was brought back the response of John Mann MP probably best sums up the response throughout the country to it – “Is that it?” – because the fundamental changes that the PM promised in the General Election and since have not materialised. There has been no repatriation of powers from Brussels to the UK, no increase in the controls over the borders we have, nothing to demonstrate the cutting of red tape and reducing bureaucracy. I’ve heard various speakers in favour of remaining saying that they recognise the need for reform [but] I have not heard one of them this afternoon outline where they think that reform should be. Ultimately this comes down to a cost benefit analysis: the cost of us remaining gains the benefit that we receive as a country. There are good things that Europe has done, I’ll not deny that. But there are also negative things and we have to make a considered and balanced judgement. There’s no point me standing up here and saying “the EU is evil incarnate and everything it does is wrong” and then others saying “the EU is the best thing since sliced bread and everything that it does is right”. The answer lies somewhere in-between those two positions and that’s where this referendum is an opportunity for the country to carefully consider the merits or otherwise of the UK remaining a member state of the EU … It does the country a national disservice if people on one side refuse to concede that there are holes in their position … we have to find a position that is considered and balanced and in the best interests of the UK. And on that basis I think that the thin gruel that the PM brought back from his negotiations is not good enough, not anywhere near what he said he would secure for the country and on that basis I think it should be rejected and people should vote to leave the European Union.
Claire Hanna (SDLP). The SDLP is 100% for a remain vote. Being pro-Europe is in the party’s DNA. I’m personally very proud that 45 years ago when we were being founded … from day one was located in European social democracy [which gives] a wider outlook. I welcome some parties that have been Eurosceptic and have weighted up on merit to see that we are best in Europe, but I do fear that some parties that define as Eurosceptic are utterly Euro-phobic and regardless of any reform that could have come through would have rejected it and had their position set on out. For me it is a no brainer. Europe is the ultimate conflict resolution project. Just look at the thousand battles that happened across the continent until World War Two and what has been achieved since then … It shouldn’t be a unionist or a nationalist position. It’s equally devastating for here regardless of your long term constitutional aspiration. It would copper fasten partition and roll back some of the small reforms we’ve had and progress on north-south over the last ten and twenty years. And from a unionist perspective I think that it would precipitate the break up of the Union. I firmly believe it would put Scots over the top in terms of their own Yes referendum. There are a million statistics that people have probably used this morning. 1 in 8 jobs could be at risk, 3% of the North’s GDP, we’re absolutely a net beneficiary and it’s very clear that any saving that the UK would make – and yes I know the statistics are disputed – but I think the Treasury’s statistic that they are approximately a £9bn net contributor. If you accept that there’s no guarantee that that saving would come here. George Osborne hasn’t shown in any way that he is minded to spend a penny more than he needs to in NI. Even with the Barnett Formula, it’s all driven by what suits England and we just get a consequential of that. To me the debate has to be not just about the goodies we get from Europe, the cargo cult of that. It has to be about the values, it has to be about cooperation, it has to be about free movement of people. It has to be about the 30,000 EU nationals that have made NI their home and are making a major contribution, the backbone of a lot of industries. There’s a major cloud over the heads of those people at the moment and those who are seeking to pull us out will need to address that. All of the big issues – climate change, refugees, crime – none of those problems stop at the border. In a very big wild uncertain world we can’t go into our shell and say we are going to deal with them on our own. There are reforms and there is bureaucracy. You don’t administrate something that has 500 million people without having some bureaucracy. The tinkering around the edges that David Cameron suggested – and I’m not saying they were without merit – but they certainly weren’t the reforms … I do want to see a more social Europe, I think the austerity and issues around bailouts and paying for it have created a deficit for a lot of people. As somebody said to me: “If we find ourselves explaining the difference between the Council of Europe and the European Council we’ve lost the referendum” but there are bigger ideas, it’s about working together and the best way to do that is in Europe.
The electronic poll by LucidTalk at the end asked the audience and contributors how they would vote if the referendum was today. 73% would have voted to remain in EU; 19% to leave. (A small, youth-heavy sample with an abundance of students and in no way representative of Northern Ireland.)