Unionist and republican MLAs present united front on EU question

Sinn Fein's Declan Kearney
Sinn Fein's Declan Kearney

A broad coalition of unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland have united behind the drive to stay in the European Union.

Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionist Party, SDLP, Alliance Party and Greens all pledged support during the official launch of the Northern Ireland Stronger In Europe campaign in Belfast.

Declan Kearney, Sinn Fein’s national chairman, said the best way to reform an “imperfect” EU was from the inside.

The South Antrim MLA said: “It is important that we don’t fall into the trap of Project Fear.

“Sinn Fein has a view that there are many imperfections in the European Union.

“Our ambition would be to see the Social Europe Project, the Green Europe Project and the Democratic Europe Project all enhanced. And, Europe needs to act much more vigorously as a force for global security and peace in the world than it has done to date.

“But, the reality is that the only place to take forward that agenda and to develop those processes is from within the European Union. Stepping outside is to put you in a place where you can only carp and criticise and bay at the moon.”

UUP MLA for Strangford Philip Smith said remaining within Europe was a “no-brainer”.

“The big issue for us is the economy,” he said. “If Northern Ireland leaves the EU – with our exports profile, having such a big agri-food industry that gets massive support – I think it would have a real detrimental impact on our future.

“Those proposing a Brexit have not been able to outline a proper alternative.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also encouraged people to vote to stay in Europe on June 23. He said there was a need to break down barriers, not build walls.

Alliance Party leader David Ford, the region’s former justice minister, argued that co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic on security matters was underpinned by European legislation that could not be easily recreated in the event of a Brexit.

Green Party councillor John Barry said that while it was in need of reform, the EU provides environmental protections as well as protecting the rights of women and workers.

The Stronger In headquarters have been set up in Belfast city centre and hundreds of volunteers are poised to take the message on to the streets, according to businessman Tom Kelly.

He claimed the economic case for staying was “overwhelming”, adding that Europe has also been crucial in creating and cementing the peace process.

Mr Kelly said: “This is a direct, once-in-a-generation election. I do not want us to turn the clock back.

“Up at Stormont we have a new government, we have a new opposition and we have new optimism for the future. Let’s build on that optimism.

“Let’s not fall into the trap of going backwards. Let’s not fall into a xenophobic argument that makes no sense.”

The Democratic Unionist Party, the largest party in the Stormont Assembly, has backed Brexit.