2016. EU Referendum: Northern Ireland Should Vote for Opportunity and Against Isolation

EU Referendum: Northern Ireland Should Vote for Opportunity and Against Isolation

Professor Gerry McKenna MRIA

The debate on the forthcoming EU Referendum has been driven as much by ideology as economic reality. Voters should reflect not only on personal ‘comfort zone’ preferences but also on future opportunities for our children and grandchildren.

Much has been made by the ‘Remain’ side of the EU funding which supports our agri-food sector, infrastructure, training programmes, research and development, student exchange, tourism, environment protection and community development. Conversely the ‘Leave’ campaign has argued that the UK contribution to the EU could be diverted to various causes, including some in Northern Ireland, in the event of UK withdrawal.

Many voters find the competing claims of both campaigns confusing. It is however difficult to imagine any UK government providing the same level of subsidies and commitment to the agri-food industry that the EU has shown over decades. Britain has consistently opposed the Common Agricultural Policy funding levels. Equally it is worth pointing out that the UK net contribution to the EU is less than 0.5% of UK GDP, less than the UK overseas aid budget and also less than the annual UK subvention to Northern Ireland. Our population is approximately ⅟40th that of the UK. Does anyone believe that saving this sum would have more than a minimal impact on overall UK public services or business support?

The real economic benefit in being part of the EU is free access to the largest trading block in the world, the EU ‘single market’ of 500 million people. Its development was championed by the UK and supported by the Irish government.  The CBI and others estimate that this has a net worth of 4-5% GDP, or £60-80 billion annually, to the UK economy. Around 44% of UK exports (and over 60% of NI exports) are to EU countries. Only 8% of total EU exports go to the UK. Trade deals take years to negotiate - it is difficult to imagine that the EU could or would streamline a trade deal with the UK. Unfettered access for the UK to the single market would be dependent upon free movement of EU citizens – a condition which would defeat one of the central purposes of the Leave campaign. Even a minor diminution in trade with the EU would have huge negative consequences for the UK economy including job losses and business failures, with Northern Ireland being the region most severely affected.

Most polls show that the most enthusiastic Remain supporters are younger voters particularly graduates and students in further and higher education.  This is unsurprising as interaction with their EU counterparts has fostered an international outward looking culture on college campuses and helped prepare them for an ever more globalised world. Northern Ireland has received more than double the overall funding per capita under the Erasmus exchange programme than the UK as a whole. Students who did an EU-funded Erasmus placement have been shown to be 50% less likely to experience long‑term unemployment.

Equally over 90% of UK academics support Remain. R&D is crucial to Northern Ireland’s future. Most of today’s major research challenges are global and not solely national.  Research involving international collaborators has been shown to have nearly 50% more measurable impact than research done at a national level. Northern Ireland has played a full part in leading and participating in EU research programmes. The EU produces over a third of the world’s scientific output - 34% more than the US and that gap has grown by 4% over the last 6 years according to the latest UNESCO data.

Northern Ireland is the only UK region that would have a land border with the EU post-Brexit. The Leave camp has argued that the UK should leave the single market but that somehow the current ‘invisible’ North-South border established as a result of the EU single market with free movement of people and goods would continue. The reality is that it would be necessary to restore border checks and certification to prevent non-EU goods freely entering the Irish Republic and EU migrants entering the UK. It is also likely that increased security would be imposed at Northern Ireland ports and airports to prevent migrants using the Irish Republic as a ‘back door’ entry route into Great Britain, thus making travel within the UK more difficult. Does the Leave campaign really wish to isolate Northern Ireland both within the UK and on the island of Ireland?

There is much at stake in this referendum. Many changes initiated and promoted by the EU including those related to working conditions, women’s rights, health and safety, and our environment have had major positive consequences for all. EU migrants have contributed greatly to our economy including our health service. The major issue is whether we wish to continue to help shape the future economic, social and political future of the European continent and remain major players in an increasingly interconnected world, or withdraw into a more inward-looking region with ever decreasing influence on the world stage? Whatever our personal preferences this latter choice would limit opportunity for current and future generations.


(Professor McKenna is President Emeritus and Hon Executive Secretary of the Heads of University Centres of Biomedical Sciences (HUCBMS). He is a former Vice Chancellor and President of Ulster University and is a Member of the Royal Irish Academy).

(Original version of article published in Coleraine Times, 17 June 2016)


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