David Cameron visited Bushmills and a dairy farm near Ahoghill this morning as part of his pro EU tour of the UK.
The prime minister flew over to warn voters in Northern Ireland of the potential economic impact of Brexit as he continues a tour of the UK setting out the case for staying in the European Union.
The PM said the country’s economy and farming industry were too closely linked to the EU to risk the “leap in the dark” of voting to quit the 28-nation bloc.
Mr Cameron first toured the Bushmills distillery in Co Antrim, where he was shown how barrels are sealed.
A spokeswoman for Old Bushmills Distillery said: “We’re delighted to have Prime Minister David Cameron here today.
“Old Bushmills Distillery is part of a global company, selling in global markets.
“We believe the matter of UK membership of the EU is for individual voters to decide on.
“Access to the EU market of 500 million people is important in a global context and will remain so.”
He then visited Harold Johnston’s dairy farm, Ballybollan House near Ahoghill.
After touring the family-owned property, which is around 200 acres and produces 1.9 million litres of milk a year, Mr Cameron spoke without notes to a gathering of farmers in a barn, and fielded questions.
Mr Johnston said: “It was an honour to host a visit from the prime minister. He had an easy manner and he was interested in the business and the wider industry and was very informed - I was impressed by that.
“I agree with the prime minister: we have access to a population of 500 million people in Europe more readily if we stay in the EU, particularly due to the fact that we are a major exporting region. NI dairy farming exports 85% of its products worldwide.”
The Ulster Farmers’ Union says it had welcomed the opportunity to host Mr Cameron on a Co Antrim farm.
“This presented a unique opportunity to sit down with the prime minister and have a face to face conversation about our concerns for the agri-food industry,” it said in a statement.
UFU president Ian Marshall said: “It’s easy for politicians to take farming for granted – but it is a vital part of the UK economy, and that is even more so in Northern Ireland.”
The UFU’s position is ‘no compelling case’ has yet been made by Brexit supporters that farming here would fare better outside the EU.
Speaking ahead of his arrival in the Province, Mr Cameron said: “I’m clear that the people of Northern Ireland, and the whole UK, are better off in a reformed European Union.
“More than 60% of Northern Ireland’s exports go to the EU, and around 40% of its investment comes from the EU. Putting that at risk is a leap in the dark.”
“It’s vital that the voices of Northern Ireland’s farmers are heard in this debate.
“They want security and certainty. I’ve never argued the EU is perfect, but I believe a reformed Europe gives them access to a huge single market and an income that helps them keep food prices low for families.
“Those who want the UK to leave the EU need to give answers on their alternatives.”
Northern Ireland’s political parties are split on the issue, with the DUP backing “leave” and Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the cross-community Alliance Mr
Party in favour of “remain”.
A declaration is expected next week from the Ulster Unionists.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers is one of five cabinet ministers who have broken ranks to campaign for the UK to end ties with Brussels.
Treasury figures put the number of jobs in Northern Ireland linked to EU trade at 50,000 in Northern Ireland, with exports up over 50% in real terms since 1998.