Leaving the EU will lead to “difficult issues relating to the border”, potentially creating a “catalyst” for criminality and an “incentive for those who would wish to undermine the peace process”.
Northern Ireland must retain competitiveness and, “importantly, retain access to labour”, both skilled and unskilled, particularly given the “many thousands of people who commute each way across the border to work on a daily basis”.
And of course, the uncertainty around the €3.5 billion that Northern Ireland expected to draw down from the EU between 2014-2020 is “of real concern to a range of sectors”.
Whilst I share each of these concerns, these warnings do not come from me, but from the office of the First and Deputy First Minister and in particular DUP leader, Arlene Foster who advocated a vote to Leave the European Union on Thursday June 23.
After months of dismissing the Remain campaign’s arguments as scare-mongering, the First Minister has co- written a letter along with the Deputy First Minister to the Prime Minister outlining the key concerns for Northern Ireland ahead of the exit negotiations with the EU. The full letter makes as convincing as case for staying in the EU as any heard before the referendum.
On reading the letter, one could only hope that there had a sudden outbreak of reasonableness in the DUP. Despite wide-ranging political differences, those of us who campaigned to stay in the EU would welcome a Damascene conversion from the DUP and the First Minister on the benefits of staying in Europe, even at this very late stage. And after all, it would not be the first time the DUP came to accept political realities that everyone else had already thought obvious for years.
Unfortunately, that is not what we have seen, with the First Minister having since refused to admit her party made any mistakes on Europe and instead expressed excitement over the ‘opportunities’ she expects outside the EU.
Why, if the First Minister is truly so excited about these ‘opportunities’, have her requests to the Prime Minister focused entirely on minimising harm and maintaining the closest approximation of the status-quo? At the very least we can be sure that what is said privately in Stormont Castle is very different to the false confidence adopted in front of the television cameras.
I suspect the heart of the issue is that the DUP leadership never seriously thought that Britain would vote to Leave, and they are now scrambling to deal with the consequences. The DUP was happy to allow it’s party to indulge in the ‘political sport’ of an antagonistic referendum campaign, but is now waking up to the devastating realities their Euro-scepticism would have on Northern Ireland if implemented. Their strategy now appears to be to quietly shift their policy on Europe whilst still paying public lip-service to increasingly discredited Leave arguments.
That the DUP would even attempt such a dramatic reversal of policy without at least acknowledging they were wrong reflects staggering political hubris and a shamefully low regard for the public’s intelligence. However, I fear those waiting for an apology will be waiting a very long time indeed.
Nevertheless, we must now work to ensure the First Minister does not dismiss concerns on Europe as lightly as she has adopted them. We must focus our efforts on protecting freedom of movement for goods, services and people and European investment, as well as fighting for those things left out of the Ministers’ letter, like the European human rights protections that are central to the Good Friday Agreement and sustainable peace in Northern Ireland.
Margaret Ritchie is MP for South Down