Labour’s shadow Secretary of State has challenged Theresa Villiers to a debate on the UK’s membership of the EU.
Vernon Coaker, who next Tuesday will debate with Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Belfast, said that he would debate “anyone” on the issue.
Mr Coaker was speaking during a visit to the News Letter alongside Will Straw, the head of the ‘In’ campaign, Britain Stronger in Europe.
Former Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson had been expected in Belfast but was unable to travel due to illness.
Mr Coaker said that he disagreed with the Secretary of State’s position on quitting the EU. But he did not echo the claims by Sinn Fein and the SDLP that she should resign because she is campaigning for an ‘Out’ vote.
“She’ll have to justify her position ... and I’ll just leave it there,” he said, adding that he was “certainly prepared” to debate with Ms Villiers “and with anyone”.
Mr Straw, who is the son of former Home Secretary Jack Straw, said that when it comes to leaving the EU “the arguments are particularly profound in Northern Ireland”.
He said that one in eight jobs in the Province are linked to trade with the EU, with a “risk” that some of those jobs would be lost if the UK votes to leave, though he conceded that many would remain regardless of the referendum outcome.
He said that a vote to leave would “bring uncertainty” about what would happen at the border.
Some unionists fear that if the Government refused to erect checks at the border then Northern Ireland people would be forced to go through passport control at airports or ferry terminals when travelling within their own country.
Mr Straw rejected claims that the EU (via the unelected European Commission) is democratically unaccountable.
“I don’t accept that it’s undemocratic,” he said, but added that “it’s not perfect” and said that the UK would be better staying in the EU to press for reforms such as an end to the estimated £150 million a year wasted on moving the EU Parliament from Brussels to Strasbourg for four days a month. France has vetoed attempts to end the so-called ‘travelling circus’.
“The question we have to ask is: Do the benefits outweigh the costs? The evidence is that it does, overwhelmingly.
“What we get out of the EU – in terms of the jobs, the inward investment, the low prices, the growth – far outweighs the cost.”
Mr Coaker said that the onus was on those campaigning to leave the EU to explain exactly how the UK would look in that eventuality, saying that it was “not good enough” for them to suggest “it’ll be all right on the night”.
He said that the UK could end up like Norway or Switzerland, having to conform to EU regulations and pay similar money as the UK to Brussels, but not having any say in how those rules are drawn up.
Mr Coaker said there were “perfectly legitimate views” on both sides of the debate. Stressing his love of Britain, but said that “patriotism is not owned by those who want to come out”.
Mr Straw argued that “if we didn’t have the EU, we’d be inventing it now” to deal with issues such as tackling climate change and working against human trafficking.