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My constituency voted overwhelmingly against the European Union; it voted to leave. Indeed, it was the constituency with the largest leave vote in Northern Ireland and about the fifth largest in the whole United Kingdom.
My constituents did not vote that way out of some sense of stupidity. I want to paint a picture of what my constituency represents. It makes up about 25% of Northern Ireland’s manufacturing base—precision engineering, aerospace, pharmaceuticals and bus manufacturing; about 60% of the buses driven on the roads of this nation’s capital are engineered and made in my constituency.
The rest of the constituency is made up of a huge hinterland of agri-food production and, at the top end, a huge tourism sector, which has seen major growth in customers from outside the EU in recent years. My constituency is diverse, wealthy and economically important to Northern Ireland, with a huge economic drive. It was part of the European Union for 40 years. The agri-food operators there are major producers of milk, beef, lamb and poultry—most the poultry sold on this side of the water is grown in my constituency. When people walk into their supermarket here, they are more than likely picking up a County Antrim turkey, piece of pork or chicken.
It could have been said that the farmers in my constituency would never be interested in leaving, because they were part of the European club. They had been in a club for 40 years, were given the choice to leave and told that they would no longer have all the largesse they had been given, but still, looking at the ballot paper, willingly decided that they wished to leave. They did not do it through stupidity, but through knowledge. Clearly, the club they had been in for 40 years was failing them in such a way that they felt that this was an opportunity to find a new direction—new hope, new employment and new opportunity.
In thinking about where we should go next and about the battles and divisions that have arisen, I am reminded of a quotation from C. Desmond Greaves, the Irish historian, who said:
“All fundamental battles in British politics take place in the Conservative party, with everyone else having bit parts.”
That may not be entirely accurate, but some of the huge issues that have driven our nation—whether it is the corn laws, the imperial preference in the 19th century, the appeasement of the Nazis in the 1930s or our relationship with the EEC in the 1960s—were about divisions in the Conservative party.
I will say this. The issue is not about how the Opposition side of the House are going to vote, but what the Government side are going to do. They have a choice: they can stuff Northern Ireland into being some sort of adjunct of this kingdom and damage it for generations—for ever—or else they can say that there is a better way, an alternative, and we will find it. We are already hearing mutterings from Downing Street that alternatives can be found and that there can be certain twists and turns. Please, Government Front Benchers, I beg you: help us find that alternative and we will help you and help make sure that this country goes on from strength to strength.