July 7, 2013 4:40 pm

Northern Ireland’s leaders warn against UK leaving EU

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Befast City Hall©AFP

Befast City Hall

Northern Ireland’s political leaders have warned that the UK leaving the EU would be a “huge mistake” that could deter foreign investors, disrupt bilateral trade with the Republic of Ireland and damage the region’s fragile economy.

“I think this would have a massive impact and it would be a huge mistake from our point of view, given our proximity to the south and the trading links we have with the south,” said Martin McGuinness, deputy first minister in the Northern Ireland executive.

EU funding to Northern Ireland
2007-2013 €2.4bn
2000-06 €2.27bn
1994-99 €1.9bn
1988-1993 €925m
Source: European Commission
*Includes CAP, structural funds, peace funds and fisheries

Mr McGuinness’ party Sinn Féin, which is the biggest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, has traditionally been eurosceptic but in recent years has softened its stance towards the EU, which, since the 1980s, has pumped several billion euros of aid into the province.

Mr McGuinness told the Financial Times that holding a referendum on EU membership was like asking Northern Ireland to jump into “uncharted waters”. The former IRA commander warned that the Conservative party was in danger of “sleepwalking” into a vote that could bring the UK out of the bloc.

“The big difficulty I have with all of this is that on a lot of occasions these things don’t happen by design but they happen by accident,” he said.

Peter Robinson, first minister in the Northern Ireland executive, told the FT he was personally in the “eurosceptic classification”, closely aligned with William Hague’s view that the bloc made sense as an element of commerce but not as one political entity. But the leader of the Democratic Unionist party said a vote by the UK to leave the EU would potentially damage the local economy.

“We have done well out of EU peace funding,” he said.

“But even more important than that, Northern Ireland has been used by many companies, particularly US companies, as [their] location . . . in Europe. So if you take the UK out of Europe obviously that has an impact,” said Mr Robinson.

The DUP, which is the biggest unionist party in Northern Ireland, is traditionally eurosceptic. Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the DUP and one of the party’s MPs at Westminster, last week co-sponsored Tory MP James Wharton’s EU referendum bill, which aims to enshrine in law that a UK referendum on EU membership must be held by 2017.

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