Jim Nicholson: We travelled to the heart of Europe so that NI is heard, post Brexit

Mike Nesbitt, centre, with Jim Nicholson, to the right of Nesbitt, with an Ulster Unionist Party delegation in Brussels this week

Mike Nesbitt, centre, with Jim Nicholson, to the right of Nesbitt, with an Ulster Unionist Party delegation in Brussels this week

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Since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union we have entered an era of uncertainty.

As Northern Ireland is the only region of the UK to border another EU Member state we are perhaps most conscious of the many unknowns that still exist.

A delegation of Ulster Unionists travelled to Brussels this week for series of briefings from a range of MEPs and organisations, including representatives from the City of London, not only about the challenges and unanswered questions that still exist, but also the potential opportunities that could be exploited.

We brought together a range of public and private sector experts and diplomats for candid discussions on the key policy areas that will be at the forefront of UK-EU negotiations - our agri-food and fishing industry, financial services, free movement of people and the relationship we will have with the Single Market.

It was clear from our conversations that there is an acceptance now from all quarters, including both the Government and the European Commission itself, that the people have spoken and that Brexit will happen. However, the process will take time and it is hard to see how any deal can be completed within even a two-year period given the complexity and the amount of unchartered water before us.

There is also the issue that the UK Government does not seem to know what kind of exit deal it wants from the EU - the Prime Minister may have hosted a special cabinet meeting to discuss this earlier this week, but it is hard to know how much further forward we actually are.

One clear opportunity that we did identify was that this is the time to be shaping the thinking of those who will be negotiating on behalf of the UK to make sure Northern Ireland gets the best deal possible.

We have the most to lose if the right deal cannot be agreed.

In the time since the referendum we, as an Opposition party, have been engaging with experts on the issues that will be on the table, through the forum we have convened and by travelling to speak to those working at the heart of the European Union in Brussels. Northern Ireland’s voice must be heard clearly and coherently in the coming weeks, months and years ahead.

• Jim Nicholson is an Ulster Unionist MEP