The DUP minister responsible for trade and enterprise has wrongly told the Assembly that the EU referendum question is not known – and has used that as his reason for not stating whether he supports an ‘out’ vote.
Jonathan Bell caused surprise at Stormont on Monday when on several occasions he emphatically told the chamber that the question which will be put to the UK public has not yet been set.
The issue arose during questions to the minister, during which the TUV’s Jim Allister told him that he looked forward to Mr Bell “coming off the fence on the issue of the EU and joining the ranks of those who want to liberate our great trading nation from its shackles”.
Mr Bell responded by admonishing Mr Allister that it was “easy” to accuse him of being on the fence, but told him: “As I stand here today, we do not know what the referendum question is.”
Although Mr Allister interjected to correct Mr Bell by saying “we do”, the minister was insistent and went as far as to brand those who have already made up their minds on the issue as “foolish”.
Several DUP MPs, including Sammy Wilson and Ian Paisley, have already said that they will firmly back quitting the EU.
Mr Bell told Mr Allister: “We do not know ... we have not been given the terms of the referendum question. Will it simply ask whether we wish to leave the European Union? In that case, I imagine that the Member will say yes. However, if the question is whether we wish to remain in the European Union, I imagine that the answer from the Member will be no.
“In the absence of knowing the exact nature of the question, it is a very, very foolish person who answers it.”
In a point of order, Mr Allister asked whether it was right for Mr Bell to “mislead the house” and highlighted that last month Mr Bell wrongly told the Assembly that the Province’s unemployment is “roughly a third of the EU average”.
The TUV leader informed the chamber that the question was set in Section 1 of the European Union (Referendum Act) 2015. The question is: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
In a statement, Mr Bell said: “I was referring to the wider question of what the exact implications of a UK exit will be. We will not know what those implications are until David Cameron’s negotiations regarding the UK’s position within the EU have concluded.
“My department has joined a UK study by Oxford Economics assessing the economic impact of BREXIT. This study has now been extended to work on a set of results for Northern Ireland. This work is still ongoing and the results will be available by the end of this financial year.”