Rival camps make appeals to electorate

Posted By: June 22, 2016

Irish News (Belfast). Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Stephen Farry MLA. Alliance economy spokesman

Tomorrow’s referendum vote will have massive and long-lasting implications for Northern Ireland, the UK and the island of Ireland for decades to come.

It will also have knock-on effects for the rest of Europe and the rest of the world.

At the heart of the matter lies a very stark choice.

On the one hand, we can continue to look outwards, celebrate diversity, enrich our societies and support jobs through trade, and realise that many problems cut across traditional boundaries and can only be solved through societies co-operating.

On the other hand, we could turn inward-looking, risk our economic future and abrogate our responsibilities to address global problems.

As employment and learning minister over the past five years, I am particularly conscious of what is at stake economically.

I have joined with others in promoting Northern Ireland as a location of inward investment. And there has been considerable success in this regard.

Yet, in all the meetings I have had with a range of potential investors, both large and small, I have never come across anyone arguing that Northern Ireland and the UK would be better off outside the European Union.

For some, it was not a huge issue, but for others it was fundamental. Indeed, this is reinforced by business surveys which show that access to markets is the most important consideration in terms of decisions around investment.

This obviously entails access to the European Single Market of 500 million potential customers and a value of over £700bn.

The choice is not between trading with the EU and the rest of the world. We want to do both.

The notion that the UK would quickly create its own trade and access to market agreements with Europe and indeed the other main global economies is extremely naive.

These agreements normally take years to negotiate and these other economies will naturally prioritise making their own agreements with the European Union as a whole.

Recently, the rate of investment has slowed related to political instability in Northern Ireland and the uncertainty of the position regarding the European Single Market.

Already Northern Ireland is at a competitive disadvantage on the island of Ireland due to the differential rate of corporation tax.

Of course, reducing the level of corporation tax alone would not address this disadvantage. Further investment in skills and infrastructure are essential.

But any exit from the European Union would only copper-fasten this competitive disadvantage.

It would be a cruel irony that just at the time when Northern Ireland is on the brink of taking that step-change in terms of lowering corporation tax, a vote to leave the EU would cancel out any benefit that would arise from it, and even make such a move pointless.

The damage to the local economy would also reinforced by the erection of some form of barriers on the island of Ireland.

Whether this would be a customs barrier or a people barrier depends on how others react to any Brexit.

Up until now, the UK and Ireland have always moved in unison in terms of policies of freedom of movement of people and goods, including entering the EU at the same time. But with a Brexit that symmetry would no longer be possible.

Europe benefits our economy in many other ways, including supporting research financially and providing networking opportunities for scientists.

It provides easier access to people from Northern Ireland to work and study abroad, and to have a wider perspective on life.

Experts, whether business leaders, economists, scientists, university vice-chancellors or world leaders, may not always get things right, but they are not always wrong.

Not only are the consequences of a Brexit not worth the risk, there is a world of opportunities ahead for us if we have the courage to Remain.