In the 1975 referendum on UK membership of the European Economic Community, the result in Northern Ireland was on a knife-edge. In contrast to the rest of the country, which saw overwhelming support for staying in, the ‘Yes’ campaign won with just 52% of the vote.
How times change. A new poll, commissioned by one of Northern Ireland’s biggest banks, has today shown great enthusiasm for the UK’s place in Europe. According to the poll, 58% would vote to stay in, compared to just 16% who would vote to leave. This should not be a surprise. It is clear that EU membership has been overwhelmingly positive for Northern Ireland.
Take the economy. Nearly one in ten of Northern Ireland’s exports are sold to the Republic of Ireland – a much higher proportion than for Britain. What’s more, it is a growth market for Northern businesses, with a 10% increase in exports in 2013/14. The taxes and red tape that would ensnare Northern Irish exporters following a Brexit would prove deeply damaging. It is little wonder a Stormont study earlier this year found Brexit could cost Northern Ireland £1bn a year.
Foreign businesses invest in Northern Ireland, as they do in the rest of the UK, to sell to the European market. If we fell out of that market, it would become that much less attractive to investors. This is especially true given the proximity of the Republic, with its 12.5% corporation tax rate and long history of hosting foreign companies. Indeed, it has been reported that aerospace giant Bombardier, Northern Ireland’s largest company, could reconsider its position in the event of a Brexit. And the Irish government is hopeful of picking up an extra €15bn in foreign direct investment should the UK quit the EU.
Northern Ireland is a huge net beneficiary of the EU budget. Due to its relative poverty and large agricultural sector, it received €2.4bn from Brussels over the 2007-13 period, and is expected to get €500m in cohesion funding over the next five years. This funding is spent by the Northern Irish Executive on projects that create jobs and growth. A good example is the new Giant’s Causeway Visitor Experience, to which Brussels contributed £6.1m. It has proved to be a pillar of the local economy, attracting 320,000 visitors in its first six months alone.
The land border with the Republic of Ireland is one of the things that sets Northern Ireland apart from the rest of the UK. With the abolition of border controls, popping across the border to do some shopping or fill up the car, or visit friends, has become a way of life. Were the UK to leave, the Common External Border of the European Union would suddenly run through the Ulster countryside. This would undoubtedly disrupt the flow of people and goods across the border.
The EU has played a role in developing the Northern Irish peace process. The PEACE programme has brought together individuals and organisations from both communities, and from both sides of the border. Additional EU funding provided €225m to build a shared society in the Province over 2007-13. More importantly, shared membership of the European Union has given the UK and the Republic of Ireland a platform on which to co-operate and build trust on all issues, contributing to a warming of relations. A Brexit could destabilise the harmony that has developed between London, Dublin and Belfast.
It has repeatedly been said, by Scottish nationalists and unionist alike, that a British exit from the EU could lead to another referendum on independence. Likewise, we should not rule out the possibility that, were Northern Ireland to be wrenched out of Europe against its will, a resurgence in support for Irish unification could take place. This would prove a further blow to the precious stability that Northern Ireland has achieved over the past 20 years.
The importance of the EU to Northern Ireland is appreciated by its people. They realise that being part of the world’s largest market creates jobs, that the free movement of people makes life easier, and that Brussels looks after places that have historically struggled. And they realise that leaving would put all of these advantages at risk.