I have never been a great EU enthusiast, but I have always been a political realist.
My views and opinions have been forged by forty plus years in the Ulster Unionist Party and my service in local Government, the Assembly and the Executive.
Being in Government, in particular my four years in Regional Development, sharpened my view that the EU, for a place like Northern Ireland, provides real opportunity.
There are many regions of EU member states like the West of Sweden, or Badden-Wurtemberg in Germany, who sweat the opportunities that EU competitive funding provides.
During the last mandate Northern Ireland upped its game on this competitive component of EU funding –we learned how best to sweat these opportunities too. In DRD I established a dedicated unit to target EU funding, and we substantially grew our share. And significantly Northern Ireland is a net beneficiary of EU funding –our region gets back more than we put in.
In the past few years we secured EU funding contributions for many local infrastructure projects; from the A2 and A8 road schemes in Carrick and Larne to new buses in Belfast, and from the train station refurbishments in Portadown and Antrim, to the huge upgrade of the Londonderry/Coleraine rail line, not forgetting the entire funding of the Enterprise rail fleet overhaul on the Belfast/Dublin service. The more we engaged with Europe the more I found there was a desire to fund projects in Northern Ireland, and a frustration that the UK as a whole was not pitching hard enough to secure funding –again in a sense providing us in Northern Ireland with greater opportunity.
Outside the EU many of these projects would simply not have happened, because the funding would not have been made available either centrally or by our devolved administration –savings in London will never equate to spending in Northern Ireland.
I am pleased to say we left a pipeline of legacy projects too. Design funding was secured for the new Belfast Transport Hub at Great Victoria Street and for the complex York Street Interchange road project –and I have found from experience that when Europe buys into the design, they will more often than not part fund the construction too.
At Warrenpoint Harbour, European funding interest was pricked by the proposed Newry Southern Relief road through the Motorways of the Sea funding stream, and in Londonderry further EU funding had been earmarked to provide a new rail station and transport hub.
Therefore in pure money terms Northern Ireland has done particularly well in Europe and if we remain I am confident we will do even better in the future.
But the Referendum debate has shifted significantly in recent weeks, and in a way understandably so, from the economy to immigration. Right across the UK people are concerned about immigration and pressures on public services during this current period of austerity –it doesn’t always cut a great deal of ice with public opinion that the vast majority of EU migrants, who come to the UK, tend to work and contribute –paying in much more than those who take out.
In our NHS you are more likely to be helped by an EU immigrant, than find yourself stuck in a queue behind one.
Indeed EU and non-EU immigration tend to get confused and sometimes deliberately so -and an argument is made about taking back control. Yet we do have absolute control over non-EU migration, there is no free movement there, and yet the numbers of newcomers are higher than from within the EU.
And when people talk about “net migration”, it is as much about the number of people who leave as the number of people who arrive, and currently we have fewer people leaving.
So my point is this, for those who believe a vote to leave will radically change the picture of immigration –put simply it wont. The much vaunted Australian points based system was specifically designed to grow the Australian population through immigration –not reduce it.
Set in contrast to the potential adverse economic impact of Brexit, issues of immigration are wider than the EU Referendum and ultimately wont be resolved by the outcome of it.
Look at what has been said about the border with the Republic –the leave campaign are maintaining it will stay open and free but at the same time say they will control immigration to the UK, both EU and non-EU. The Republic has no right to say no to EU nationals, and the UK will have no right to tell the Republic which non-EU nationals they should admit.
I fear like so many others that customs checks will disrupt life along the border and immigration checks will end up in our ports and airports that link us with GB, providing Northern Ireland with a diminished status within the UK.
It is for these reasons, together with the potential destruction of the Union that a second Scottish referendum could deliver, that brings a political realist like me to conclude that it is in Northern Ireland’s economic interest, and in the interests of Unionism as a whole, for the UK to remain fully within single market and within the EU.
Whilst I accept this is a position that appeals much more to the head than the heart –the referendum on the 23rd should not be decided on instinct or emotion, it should be determined with dispassion on cold hard reality.
Danny Kennedy is Ulster Unionist MLA for Newry and Armagh