Tory MP Owen Paterson – who became the UK’s Secretary of State for farming after his stint in Northern Ireland – was touring the country with fellow campaigners from the anti-EU camp on Monday.
Along the way he met farmers and fishermen, and the day concluded with a debate with businessmen and women in Belfast – the results of which indicate that he managed to sway a great many of them with his arguments.
The ticketed event for roughly 150 people began by asking those in attendance what the best decision would be for the UK as a whole in the referendum.
At the start of the evening, those who thought it would be best for the UK as a whole to leave stood at 33 per cent (with 53 per cent opting for ‘remain’ and the rest undecided).
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By the end of the debate, the proportion who thought it would be best for the UK as a whole to leave had risen to 50 per cent, with 40 per cent voting for ‘remain’, and the rest undecided.
A similar question was asked of the audience – namely, whether its members felt it would be best for their own organisations if the UK left the EU.
It showed a lower level of enthusiasm for an exit, but also indicated that the Brexit brigade had emerged better from the debate than their rivals (at the start 22 per cent said ‘leave’ and 59 per cent opted for ‘remain’, and by the end, 41 per cent said ‘leave’, and 48 per cent opted for ‘remain’).
Mr Paterson had been joined in the debate by fellow Eurosceptic Kate Hoey (Labour), and they had argued against Labour MP Vernon Coaker and ex- Tory MEP John Stevens.
“Kate and I are pretty chuffed!” he said.
Earlier in the day he had been visiting the fishing port of Kilkeel, and before that he strolled the streets of central Belfast, where he said he got “a pretty friendly reception”.
Asked how opinion differs in Northern Ireland from the mainland UK, he said: “I think here actually probably is still a bit like Scotland – a bit more in favour of ‘remain’ because there is this quite significant public sector and public spending. That’s part of it.
“But it’s moving.”
It was put to him that he would have an uphill struggle convincing the Province’s sizeable farming community to vote against staying in the EU, after the Ulster Farmers’ Union said in February that while it will not campaign one way or the other, “no compelling argument has been made that agriculture would be better off outside the EU”.
Mr Paterson said: “I talked to some farming organisations today. There are people who are listening to us.”
On the question of whether the UK Government will still provide the same level of support to farmers that the EU now does in the event of a pull-out, he said: “Why are we going to attack one of our key strategic industries?
“Why are we suddenly going to do something to damage that?”