David Cameron has warned 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 (EU).
The prime minister 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.
Speaking to locals at Ballybollan House dairy farm in County Antrim during his visit on Saturday morning, Mr Cameron stressed the importance of EU membership to the industry.
“Many of those who want to ask you to vote to leave are actually not really sure whether they want to leave or not,” he said. “I think that should set alarm bells going in the minds of voters about the potential dangers and risks that we face if we leave.”
Treasury figures put the number of jobs in Northern Ireland linked to EU trade at 50,000, with exports up over 50% in real terms since 1998.
Before speaking at the farm, Mr Cameron toured the Bushmills distillery in Co Antrim, where he was shown how barrels are sealed.
A spokeswoman for Old Bushmills Distillery said the firm was “delighted” to have hosted a visit by Mr Cameron.
“Old Bushmills Distillery is part of a global company, selling in global markets,” she added.
“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.”
Later at Ballybollan House, Mr Cameron toured 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.
The owner of the dairy farm, Harold Johnston, said afterwards: “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.
Northern Ireland’s political parties are split on the issue, with the Democratic Unionists backing “leave” and Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the cross-community Alliance 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.