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Brexit: Contingency Plans

Oral Answers to Questions — The Executive Office – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 13th June 2016.

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Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP 2:00 pm, 13th June 2016

3. Mr Aiken asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister to outline any contingency plans their Department has in place should the UK decide to leave the European Union. (AQO 3/16-21)

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

An exit from the European Union is not a certainty. It will be negotiated only if the public vote to leave in the referendum on 23 June. The British Government have indicated that they are not planning on that basis. We will also await the outcome of the June referendum.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

In view of the concerns raised by the Northern Ireland business community, Northern Ireland business organisations and many of the political parties in the Assembly, including his party, will the deputy First Minister be in discussion with his other governmental party about looking closely at what the implications of a Brexit vote may be and what support a Brexit vote may raise? Will he then formally take the opinion and view of the Chamber and, on behalf of all the Government, represent that view to the people of Northern Ireland?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

I think that, by this stage, the views of all the parties in the Assembly are well known. I do not think our partners in the Government have any difficulty in understanding our position in relation to the referendum. We are very firmly in the "Remain" camp, for all of the reasons that the Member has articulated. Obviously, our partners in the Government have a different view. This is a democracy; people are entitled to their view. I very strongly hold to the view that any decision to leave the European Union would be hugely detrimental to society, our business community, our farming community and the community and voluntary sector. I also note that people say there will be no checkpoints on the borders in the event of a Brexit. This morning, on social media, I saw a photograph that somebody had put up of the border that exists between Norway and the European Union. Do I want to see checkpoints on the roads from Derry to Letterkenny, from Tyrone to Monaghan and from Newry to Dundalk? Certainly not.

Photo of Claire Hanna Claire Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party

It is interesting that the deputy First Minister noted that he would wait to see the outcome of the election before setting a hard course. That is a good idea; it is a pity nobody else is allowed to do that. In the disastrous event of a Brexit, which powers that are currently with the European Union does he see being devolved to Northern Ireland? Has he done an audit of those powers? Which would usefully come to the Assembly?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

People are jumping to a position regarding the referendum. The referendum has not yet been held. It will be held on 23 June. I do not know what the outcome will be. I hope that it is a vote to remain.

In the context of the debate thus far, there are so many unknowns about what will happen on the other side of the referendum, and we will have to deal with them, whatever they are. If, unfortunately, we end up in that scenario, there will be a two-year position with regard to negotiating a way forward, and I presume there will be a lot of negotiations in that period. However, I am not working on the basis of this being a Brexit vote; I am working on the basis of it being a "Remain" vote.

Photo of Declan McAleer Declan McAleer Sinn Féin 2:15 pm, 13th June 2016

The Minister obviously agrees that an exit would have a massive impact here in the North of Ireland, given our particular circumstances.

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

I think that we all understand that any such vote would have a massive impact. We have had the debate. Obviously, we represent only a very small percentage of the overall number of people entitled to vote, but I think we can say, without fear of contradiction, that, at the moment, given the support from the SDLP, the Alliance Party, the Ulster Unionists and us, the hope is that the majority of people in the North will vote to remain. If so, we will stand proudly with Scotland, which I believe will vote to remain. However, the big vote will be in England, as many of us know. It is not a situation over which we have any control. I will be in England later this week, making a speech outlining the implications of all of this for us. I hope that people in Britain, particularly the Irish community, will recognise the great dangers for our economy and social interaction, North and South.

Photo of Steven Agnew Steven Agnew Green

The deputy First Minister mentioned the possibility of border checks. Does he agree that the "Leave" campaign cannot have it both ways? They argue, on the one hand, that they will control the borders and reduce immigration and, on the other, say that we will not have a border checkpoint. Does he agree that we should protect the free movement of people and that the "Leave" campaign should be honest and admit that, if they want to control the borders, that will mean having checkpoints?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

I listened to Nigel Lawson's interview on 'The Andrew Marr Show' a couple of weeks ago, and he gave the game away very clearly. He was emphatic in his belief that there would have to be checkpoints. The fact that we have seen, this morning, the photographs of checkpoints that exist between Norway and the rest of the European Union adds validity to his argument. He is not the only person who has said that.

It has to be a source of great concern to all of us who, I think, have all benefited from the open border. You can now drive from central Belfast to central Dublin in an hour and a half or an hour and three quarters without hitting a red light or a checkpoint. I think that the last thing people here want to see — particularly people in the business community and those who socialise regularly, as is happening increasingly as the peace process develops — is anything that in any way interferes with the very important social interaction, North/South or, indeed, east-west.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

If the people of the United Kingdom have the wisdom to unshackle us from the disastrous EU, is there an assurance that the deputy First Minister and his party will not seek to stymie the opportunities to liberate business, including farming, from costly regulation, will not stand in the way of the resulting bonfire of regulation and will not stand in the way of the rebirth of our fishing industry?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

Well, I think I represent a very responsible political party in this Assembly. The Member may not think so, but I certainly think so. In the aftermath of the vote, whatever the outcome, we will behave very responsibly indeed. It is hugely important that we all recognise the seriousness of what is about to happen. The Member takes a different view from mine, but, again, he is entitled to that opinion. Whatever happens on the other side of the vote, we, behaving responsibly, will deal with our partners in government and other parties in the House to ensure that we continue to move our society forward.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Like the deputy First Minister, I hope that the vote will be to remain. However, regarding contingency plans, has he or, indeed, the First Minister received any assurance from the UK Government that the money that we currently receive from the EU into Northern Ireland would be replaced by money from Westminster were we to go through the process of withdrawing from the EU?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

The answer to that is no. Neither the First Minister nor I has received any assurance whatsoever. Even if we had, I would not trust it for one minute. This is a British Government that were ruthless in dealing with our block grant over the period that they were in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. I have absolutely no faith whatsoever that whatever money is lost through single farm payments, the CAP or anything else will be returned to us by a British Government that are totally and absolutely committed to austerity.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Does the deputy First Minister recognise that removing the United Kingdom from Europe would bring many more powers back to the Assembly, and, instead of having unelected commissioners making decisions that impact on the lives of the people, the Assembly would be making those decisions and bringing about a far greater level of democracy for the people of Northern Ireland?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

My position is the same as that of my party, which is one of critical engagement with the European Union. Not everything about the European Union is hunky-dory, and we have articulated our concerns about different aspects, some of which the Member referred to in his remarks. However, we have to deal with the impact of a Brexit vote on how we develop our economy. Of course, as the Member will know, over the course of my dealings with Rev Ian Paisley — God rest him — Peter Robinson and Arlene Foster, then as the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and now as First Minister, our visits to the United States were hugely important in attracting more foreign direct investment and jobs than at any other time in the history of the state. For all the delegations, through the access that we had courtesy of the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, to the highest levels of the business community in the United States, the issue of our continuing involvement in Europe always came up.

One of the big difficulties that we face in the context of any Brexit vote will be how that will have an impact on our ability to attract foreign direct investment, given that one of the major arguments that we used was that we were a near-shore location for a jump-off into the European Union. There are huge implications for us from this vote, and I hope that, in its aftermath, the wisdom of the people will come through and that they will recognise that the great benefits, particularly for us, are ones that we should not spurn.