EU Referendum: Northern Ireland

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 16th March 2016.

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Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down 11:00 am, 16th March 2016

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the effect of the UK leaving the EU on Northern Ireland.

I am glad to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Crausby, and pleased to see the Minister in his place. I am grateful to have this opportunity to highlight in brief the effect that the UK’s leaving the EU would have on Northern Ireland. I believe that all of Britain and Northern Ireland benefit from being part of the EU, but there are special circumstances in Northern Ireland that require thorough consideration before the vote in June. To put it simply, Northern Ireland uniquely benefits from our membership of the EU, and would be uniquely hurt by leaving.

The most obvious issue, for which there is no parallel in Britain, is the land border that we share with the south of Ireland. Anyone who lives in a border county will know for themselves that talk of a hard border in Ireland is not an abstract, scary story, but a living memory. I was reminded of that last week when I attended the launch of the Irish4Europe campaign in London. It is a campaign group set up to encourage Irish people living in Britain to engage with the referendum. During the questions and answers, someone told us about growing up in Quigley’s Point in Donegal, and an attempt to smuggle 4 lb of Northern Irish butter into Donegal. It was foiled by the honesty of his grandmother, who when asked by the guard whether there was anything to declare lifted her coat off the back seat and revealed the 4 lb of butter. We laughed but the story is less funny in the light of an official report from the Cabinet Office that says:

“Northern Ireland would be confronted with difficult issues about the relationship with Ireland. Outside the EU’s Customs Union, it would be necessary to impose customs checks on the movement of goods across the border.”

To be clear, that warning comes not from me or my party but directly from the Cabinet Office. The same report says:

“Questions would also need to be answered about the Common Travel Area which covers the movement of people.”

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality)

I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. She will understand that I come from a different point of view. The Stormont Public Accounts Committee recently concluded that Brexit would have little effect or impact on the Northern Ireland economy. Secondly, the hon. Lady will know that the fishing industry in Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel is clear that it wants a viable fishing industry free from EU red tape, the quota system, days at sea and EU legislation. They want to be able to fish the seas round their area—

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East

Order. Mr Shannon, interventions should he short.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

Needless to say, I do not accept that proposition—for a simple reason. I understand and appreciate people in the fishing industry because I represent fishermen from two of those ports, but I also understand that it would be possible to argue better for reform of the common fisheries policy by continued membership of the EU. There are people in the fishing industry, and senior people particularly, who have told me that fishermen have asked public representatives to be particularly cautious. Many of the regulations about discards and the landing ban originated in London, in Whitehall, and not in Brussels. People must be careful about that point.

Photo of Tom Blenkinsop Tom Blenkinsop Labour, Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland

The hon. Lady is making excellent progress in her prosecution of the argument for remaining in the European Union. Upstairs, the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs is conducting an investigation of Brexit. We have just heard from the Ulster Farmers Union about why, for them, the case for Brexit has not been made. Its members have worries about the potential for 40% of their trade to the continental European beef and dairy market to be damaged by a Brexit scenario.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

That was a very helpful intervention, and that story has been articulated to me by farmers, and the farming community and its representatives, including the Ulster Farmers Union. They are concerned about the free movement of products, produce and people across the island of Ireland. The north’s greatest export market is the south of Ireland. It is also here in Britain, and the wider common market of the 27 countries. We all know how long it takes for an export certification to be processed. It can take several years. Just look what has happened in China. We are still awaiting a certificate in respect of Taiwan. As for the export of poultry products to China, that has not yet been resolved. The nonsense being perpetrated by the no campaign should stop, because it is scaremongering to farmers, farming communities, and particularly those whom I represent.

To go back to the Cabinet Office report, I stress that it does not say that either the British or Irish Government would want to impose custom points. It simply says that it would become necessary. It highlights how, outside the European Union, managing the border could quickly fall outside either Government’s control. No matter what the wishes of the two Governments were, the border would become a victim of differing policies between the Common Market and the exited UK.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

My hon. Friend touches on an important point, because borderism would become inevitable. We are not free of it at the minute, even within the current EU context, as wedding car businesses in my constituency can testify. Once those pressures or issues arise, border controls and border differences are emphasised, and that has an impact on trade.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I thank my hon. Friend for a helpful and informed intervention. His constituency has a clear border with County Donegal, and he articulates a particular fear: our concern that customs posts will immediately be put up, and will carry with them a major impediment to and restrictions on trade and people’s betterment. Far from improving control of our borders, leaving the

EU would make it harder for the UK to manage the only land border that it has with the Common Market. That is a risk that we cannot afford to take.

We must remember that the south of Ireland is by far the north’s biggest export market. The latest regional trade statistics produced by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, released at the beginning of the month, show that a third of all exports from the north went to the south of Ireland, at a value of more than £2 billion. In the decades before the European Union made an open border possible, the hard border prevented north-south trade developing naturally, to the detriment of all communities in the north. By helping to open up the border, the European Union has enabled businesses to begin building a mature all-island economy that benefits and enriches everyone in the region.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining what is obviously a timely debate. She talked about reform being necessary, and I have heard her and her colleagues mention that before. Does she agree that, whatever negotiations the Prime Minister has done, and whatever reforms have been agreed, the deal will be that we have got what we have got and will have to accept it, with all its problems and faults, or else leave? She cannot have her cake and eat it—talking about reform after the debate has concluded and the referendum has been held.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

The Social Democratic and Labour party and I strongly believe that we should remain in the European Union. If Britain were to exit, it would cause immense economic, social and political damage to Northern Ireland. Our political and peace processes were modelled on the European Union, when countries came together in a post-conflict situation. The European Union is good for political, economic and social cohesion. Already, we have had reforms to the common fisheries policy through regionalisation. There is nothing to prevent further discussions from taking place within the European Union, to enable even better deals on that specific issue.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Scotland Office)

I thank the hon. Lady for securing this debate. In the past two years, the Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has received £635 million in EU funding, mainly due to single farm payments. Given the huge contribution of agriculture to the Northern Ireland economy, does she agree that that should be fully addressed by the Government before asking people to vote in the upcoming referendum?

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I thank the hon. Lady for her helpful intervention. That is what farmers have been saying to me consistently. They want to remain within the European Union because there is certainty with the direct payments that they currently receive. There is absolutely no certainty in an exit about the type, form and nature of the moneys that those farmers would receive, because the UK is currently going down the road of austerity and cuts—we will probably hear about that later, in the Budget. I do not want to see the farmers whom I represent in South Down, nor those of my colleagues, subjected to such cuts.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Before she moved on to agriculture, she was talking about the political process. Does she agree that the cross-community support for peace won, and the role of the EU in the peace process in Northern Ireland, were essential in, and continue in subsequent programmes to be an essential component of, the peace process? The European Union has been positive for the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. All the moneys that have come out of the peace programme have brought people together, right across communities; they helped to build that peace and political process and that delicate, intricate network of relationships.

The same has happened with the Interreg programme. I look at those cross-border programmes. I look at what has happened up in the north-west, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Mark Durkan, with district councils along the border there between Derry and Donegal; down between Fermanagh, Cavan and Monaghan; and also in my own area—the east border region—with the constituency of Jim Shannon, my own constituency, Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon, with Louth and Monagahan. Those relationships have borne money for many types of cross-border project and have allowed people to grow together in mutual understanding, through the benefit of the European Union. I wish others who think differently would stop being naysayers in this debate.

Much has been said about the impact on farm subsidies. It is an area where our economy is hugely reliant on our ability to export to and work with the south. Farming makes up a bigger proportion of our economy in Northern Ireland than it does in England, Scotland or Wales, and our smaller population means that we have no other option but to export. That means Northern Irish farmers are especially reliant on access to EU markets, including the south, and farmers in Northern Ireland receive more than £230 million a year in support from the European Union.

The Ulster Farmers Union has made it clear—it has probably already said so this morning in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee—that that support has been vital in keeping our sector sustainable through tough times. I am certain that £230 million a year is more support than we would ever be able to secure from the British Government, should we vote to leave the EU. My certainty on that comes from the years that I and my colleagues before me have spent fighting for the interests of farmers in South Down and other constituencies.

Both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Cabinet Office have made it clear that there are no serious contingency plans in place for how support for farmers would be replaced should we leave the EU. Every penny would have to be fought for, in competition with all of Scotland, England and Wales. For others to suggest the contrary is totally spurious. No matter what they claim, the only way we can be certain that the support for farmers will continue is to vote to remain this June. Of course, we have already heard some politicians promise that their good relations with the British Government will enable them to secure even more support for Northern Ireland should we leave the EU. I ask those politicians: where have you been for the past five years, as we have seen cut after cut to services in Northern Ireland?

The damage to agriculture will come not only from the loss of subsidies, but from the instability and confusion that transitioning away from the common agricultural policy would cause. One need only look at the massive problems caused for farmers by the ongoing delays in getting payments out in the basic payment scheme. Delays in the payment of European support have pushed many farmers into debt and hugely undermined the sector. Imagine how much greater damage would be caused by the wholesale loss of European support. In contrast to the instability and uncertainty we would face outside the EU, if we work with our neighbours in the south and with the greater Common Market—to which we can export our products, and which could be fractured if there was an exit—we can build an outward-looking, sustainable agricultural sector.

I would like to conclude with a few words on the founding purpose of the European Union and what it means to us in the north. The European Union was founded to bring peace to a continent that had been torn apart by war and conflict, and to enshrine respect for human rights throughout the continent. The duty to build a lasting peace may seem far removed in the UK-wide debate, where the memories and sacrifices of the second world war grow more distant by the year, but it is something that we in Northern Ireland understand all too well. For us in Northern Ireland, the EU’s principles of co-operation, integration and reconciliation are as relevant today as they were 40 years ago.

The EU has been a practical as well as a symbolic partner for us. We should not take for granted the money that comes to us when we look at the peace programme and at the funding from Interreg. Our membership of the European Union also helps to guarantee the human rights protections that made the Good Friday agreement possible. Those protections have since been further embedded, post-Lisbon, through the EU charter of fundamental rights, made binding on all member states since 2009. I therefore regret the decision of the British Government to scrap the Human Rights Act.

The EU might not be perfect, and we do not claim it is. We want more democracy, more accountability and more engagement, but voting leave will not get us any of that. Ultimately, voting leave would send a message to the world that we are more interested in looking inward than engaging with our neighbours. It would send a message that we have lost faith in building a better Europe and a better Northern Ireland within an island of Ireland. That would be a disaster for us. I still believe that dialogue, openness and integration are the only means to a better society, both in Northern Ireland and throughout Europe. Those, for me, are the principles of the European Union. That is why I will be voting to remain this June and why my party and I will be encouraging others to do the same—not out of fear, but out of hope and anticipation for the future that we can build together.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 11:18 am, 16th March 2016

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate Ms Ritchie on securing this important debate. We can probably all agree that this will be a once-in-a-lifetime referendum. I certainly welcome the chance for the people of the United Kingdom hopefully to reaffirm their commitment to this country being a member of the European Union. I have always supported our membership, and the Government’s efforts and the reforms we have achieved mean that we can make a strong case for remaining within the European Union.

Since the general election last May, the Government have pursued an agenda of reform and re-negotiation to deliver change in our relationship with the European Union. Following months of negotiations, we ended up with a new settlement that gives the UK a special status within the EU, as well as setting the EU as a whole on the path to long-term reform. We have protected the UK’s rights as a country within the single market but outside the eurozone to keep our economy and financial system secure and to protect UK businesses from unfair discrimination.

Our new settlement confirms that the regulatory burden on businesses, and particularly small businesses, will be reduced and there will be a new focus on extending the single market to bring down the remaining barriers to trade within the EU. We have secured agreement that the treaties will be changed in future, so that the UK is carved out of ever closer union, and we have established a mechanism for decision making to return from Brussels to the UK. We have secured new powers to tackle the abuse of free movement and to reduce the unnatural draw of our benefits system in order to meet our aim of reducing immigration by creating fairer rules, while protecting our open economy. Our new settlement resets the balance in our relationship with the EU. It reinforces the clear economic and security benefits of EU membership, while making it clear that we cannot be required to take part in any further political integration.

The UK is stronger, safer and better off in the EU. It is better off, because Northern Ireland and its businesses need access to 500 million consumers to which they can sell their goods; consumers who can afford to buy our goods and who can trade their business or supply our businesses in Northern Ireland. It is better off because being part of the European Union puts us in pole position to negotiate free trade agreements around the world with other large trading blocs and other large economies.

I am probably one of the few people in this House who took part in the negotiations for the UK-US defence trade co-operation treaty back in 2006—it is an individual treaty between the UK and the US—which involved very long graft. Ask anyone in aerospace what actual concessions we got from the United States and they will say it was a bare minimum. I was also part of the EU-US trade treaty negotiations in the early part of the previous Government, when I worked for the then Lord Chancellor. It was clear at that stage that the United States was only interested in a free trade agreement with the European Union. That is where the game is; that is where free trade agreements are made. We are therefore better off being part of the EU, so that we can collectively negotiate at that position.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Westminster Group Leader (Scottish Parliament/Scottish Government Liaison), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Devolved Government Relations)

Does the Minister agree that the EU is about not just economic union, but social union? It is a Union that has delivered many valuable social and employment protections across Europe for its members.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

The EU is a whole range of things, but I think that at its heart it is about trade. The freedom to trade is the greatest driver of reform and of other people’s freedoms and rights across the world. Originally, the concept of the European Union, or its predecessors, revolved around trade. I believe that for Northern Ireland businesses, access to regulation-free, tariff-free trade with its neighbour in the Republic of Ireland or elsewhere in Europe is absolutely one of the benefits and is at the heart of why we should remain members of the European Union.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality)

When the Prime Minister went to secure concessions from the European Union, he was unable to secure anything for the fishing industry or the agricultural sector directly. Remembering that we put some £19.7 billion into the EU and receive £15 billion in return, we are better off out of the Union; the fishermen will have control of their industry, as will the farmers, and the extra £4 billion that we will have can be used directly for those sectors.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

I am afraid that I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, and nor do many in the Ulster Farmers Union whom I have met to discuss the issue. In this modern world our farmers need access to markets and access to consumers. One reason why farmers in the Republic have a higher milk price is the efforts of the Irish Government to forge new export markets for their milk products. That is not about leaving the European Union; it is about helping our farmers, whether in England or Northern Ireland, to access new markets and new consumers. We have to remember that the consumers have to be able to afford the products. It is all very well trying to push products outside the European Union, but how many people in the rest of the world will be able to afford European products? There are a few in developing countries, but the idea that our farmers will get easier access to markets if we leave the European Union is just pie in the sky.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party, Foyle

We have heard a number of interventions this morning, and clearly some people seem to believe that if the UK leaves the EU suddenly all the money that the UK sends into Europe will make its way to Northern Ireland instead, for the benefit of farmers and fishermen there. Does the Minister’s right hon. Friend the Secretary of State share the belief that there is a crock of gold for Northern Ireland at the end of the Brexit rainbow?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office)

We are all grown-ups, I hope, in this House. We all know the pressures that every Department across Whitehall gets on an annual basis from Treasury Ministers and other Ministers alike. Our farmers, with their direct payments from Europe, are often in a position to resist pressures from other Whitehall Departments.

Take the idea, for example, that we would have let previous Labour Secretaries of State responsible for agriculture to get hold of that money en route to farmers. How long would it have lasted? This Government will continue to support our farmers, but I cannot guarantee that that would happen if Members from other parties in this House got into government.

The Government believe that being a member of the European Union makes us safer. Co-operation on security is at the heart of a successful security policy. We all remember the days of wrangling with Irish courts about deportation and bringing people back to the United Kingdom for trial. Not so long ago I recalled someone under licence, and they will be brought back under a European arrest warrant. It was straightforward. There is no more of the long wrangling that often saw people walk free. The co-operation that we have around the table in Europe on security issues creates trust, and at the heart of a good security policy is trust. I believe that remaining part of the European Union will allow us to develop that trust and build on it, and I also believe that we will be stronger. We are part of the European Union, and we are part of NATO, the G8 and the G20. All those organisations—all those unions and groupings—allow the United Kingdom to amplify its voice across the world stage. They allow us not to stand alone on many issues, which is very important.

The hon. Member for South Down mentioned the border. It is a fact that if we vote to leave the European Union, we will be outside the customs union. If we are outside it, the EU will require the remaining member states to make sure that there are safeguards to protect that customs union. That will inevitably be some form of barrier to trade, to small and large businesses in Northern Ireland. I met some small businesses in north Belfast only a few days ago. They effortlessly trade and grow their business across the border, and they effortlessly make sure that they have new markets in the Republic of Ireland. I do not think that the whole border will be shut if we leave, but I certainly believe that there will be extra barriers to trade that we do not need or that are unhelpful.

I will make a final point. People will hear the debate about guaranteeing our borders and sovereignty. It is obviously true that within the European Union we have arrangements with regard to our borders, but let us not forget that we are members of the UN. We have obligations under a succession of treaties—the 1951 Geneva convention relating to the status of refugees, the 1967 protocol relating to the status of refugees, the 1948 universal declaration of human rights, the 1984 UN convention against torture, which prevents us from deporting people to countries where torture or harsh punishment exist, and the 1989 UN convention on the rights of the child. All that means that were we to leave the European Union, we would still be obliged to take into this country a huge range of people under our UN obligations. That is an example of where our sovereignty does not 100% lie. Are we saying that we will then leave the UN? Is that the next thing—“Stop the world, we want to get off”?

We should remember that were we to leave the European Union, our borders would not be as easy for trade as we may like, and they would not be as open to the hundreds of thousands of tourists that come to Northern Ireland every year. Our borders would also not be so easy for our air flights to and from Northern Ireland, so that people can arrive in the south, travel up through for tourism and fly out of Northern Ireland. All that is incredibly important to remember.

I have to say to the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) that I am a Unionist. Many of the reasons for belonging to the United Kingdom are the same as the reasons for belonging to the European Union. I do not say that the reasons are all the same, but the freedom to trade, the shared culture and the removal of barriers are things that, in my heart, make me a Unionist. I do not understand the Democratic Unionist party’s view that by putting in a new border we will somehow guarantee ourselves all those investments and good trade practices that are important, and also the ability to be stronger in Europe, rather than weaker on the outside.

Photo of Margaret Ritchie Margaret Ritchie Social Democratic and Labour Party, South Down

Does the Minister agree that there has been so much financial benefit in terms of tourism, economic development and investment, and that we must not imperil those by an exit?

Photo of David Crausby David Crausby Labour, Bolton North East


Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.