The Referendum on 23rd June is one of the most significant decisions that both Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom will have to take in a generation – and it is hugely important that we get it right, not just right for those of us old enough to vote, but right for the many young people not yet able to vote, but whose lives will be lived in the shadow of our decision.
It is without question that the most compelling argument to remain is the economic one and that economic argument is even more compelling when applied to the regions.
It is well understood that places like Northern Ireland face a particular cocktail of risk.
So whilst both sides of the argument accept that Northern Ireland is a net beneficiary from the European Union – and both sides agree that Northern Ireland gets back more than it pays in – our regional economic profile places us disproportionately more at risk of economic turbulence.
Here in Northern Ireland our regional exports to the EU makes up over half of all Northern Ireland’s exports, and Germany and France are amongst our biggest markets.
Local businesses, many of which are small family businesses, overwhelming support Northern Ireland remaining in the EU because they understand the potential impact on their businesses, on their staff, the impact on local jobs and the economy.
But the remain campaign isn’t just about employers, the EU has worked in the interests of employees too giving us, amongst other things, equal treatment for men and women, maternity and paternity rights, workers’ rights on paid holidays and company takeovers, protection from excessive hours and exploitation, health and safety standards that have saved lives and of course protection for discrimination in the broader sense.
Our agriculture sector receives 87% of its farm income from the European Union so it’s no surprise that one farming leader was reported as saying Leave campaigners are inviting you to jump over a cliff with a shout of “let’s build a plane on the way down”.
There is simply no point hoping that other regions of the UK will be overlooked for us to be maintained in a manner to which in a sense we have become accustomed.
Our NHS and welfare systems both rely on a strong economy and healthy tax income to provide support for the sick and vulnerable.
Only in the past few days the two men who ran the NHS in England for fifteen years sounded a clear warning when they said “history shows the fortunes of the NHS and the state of the economy are inextricably linked – every economic downturn has hit NHS finances and the care of patients”.
And like the fact that there is agreement that Northern Ireland is a net beneficiary, there is expert agreement that our economy would be damaged by Brexit.
We know from our own experience having just come through a significant recession that the recovery here in Northern Ireland has been slower and more painful than many other UK regions.
I listened yesterday to BBC Talkback, to Boris Johnson’s dad Stanley, outlining why he was supporting remain and why he disagreed with his son on the referendum.
He recalled being in Brussels way back at the beginning of the 70s and reminded listeners how things weren’t necessarily better back then.
There’s a reason for this and it’s best summed up by the American novelist Katherine Porter who wrote, “The past is never where you think you left it.”
And at times the referendum debate seems a bit like that with Leave Campaigners harking back to a past that was never as rosy as it seemed.
Here in the new Northern Ireland with our new dispensation and now new Executive and new Opposition, the prospect of turning the clock back is an anathema to the majority of our citizens and a betrayal of our young people to whom we promised so much.
Their spirit of positivity, good sense and inclusion is Northern Ireland’s greatest hope for a safe, strong and prosperous future – and it’s our young people who get it better than most that our future will be stronger, safer and better off working within the EU than outside it.
• Tom Kelly OBE D.Phil. FCIPR is chair of NIStrongerIN. The campaign launches today in Belfast, welcoming representatives from across the political spectrum.