The European Movement in Northern Ireland was represented at an important speech by the Taoiseach Enda Kenny on the forthcoming referendum on UK membership of the European Union.
The Taoiseach attended an event in the Ulster University’s Belfast campus, just across the road from where the new UU campus will be built on loans from the EU bank, the European Investment Bank.
The Taoiseach said the decision faced by voters in Northern Ireland on June 23rd ‘is as important for the future of this island as when we all voted for the Good Friday Agreement’.
“At the outset, I want to say very clearly that the Irish Government recognises that the decision on 23 June on the UK’s membership of the EU rests firmly in the hands of the electorate in all parts of the UK,” said Enda Kenny.
“Nonetheless, it is no secret that the Irish Government very much wants the UK to stay as a member of the EU and work with us to make it better.
The prospect of Northern Ireland being outside the EU is one we very much wish to avoid.
As Taoiseach, I have a responsibility as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.
And I am also a party to the agreement that the Prime Minister reached with his European Council colleagues on the future of the UK membership of the EU.
I spoke up loudly and clearly in support of the Prime Minister in Brussels, and was happy to do so.
It is very important that everyone realises that, if the UK votes to leave the European Union, I will in future be the only political representative from these islands at the European Council table.
There will be nobody there – no voice at the most powerful table on our continent – to represent or speak for Britain, for Scotland, for Wales…or for Northern Ireland.
That is why I am here today – to speak up for what I sincerely believe to be in the best interests of everyone on these islands”.
-Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD
Enda Kenny said that when the Good Friday Agreement was concluded 18 years ago, the detail of the negotiations and the agreement itself were brought about as a result of intensive engagement by the British and Irish governments in conjunction with the Northern parties.
But also ‘vital, and quite often underestimated, was the international support for the process, not least that of the European Union’.
“I very firmly believe that our common membership of the EU provided an important backdrop to the Irish and UK governments working together to secure peace in Northern Ireland. Working together in Europe over the course of four decades on common policy matters has helped build trust between our political systems, our administrations and civic society. The EU itself has played a very constructive role in fostering that peace and has provided a framework for cooperation – whether between North and South, East and West or between unionists and nationalists. EU funding has also supported the creation of many uncontested spaces in which both traditions can work together. Communities have been assisted in embedding the possibilities latent in the Good Friday Agreement – first through the EU’s contribution of €200 million to the International Fund for Ireland and then through PEACE programme funds.
“In terms of peace and reconciliation on the island, under the various EU funded PEACE programmes since 1995, Northern Ireland has directly benefitted from close to €1 billion of ERDF funding.
“The new PEACE IV Programme which was recently launched will see the island of Ireland benefit from almost €230 million of direct ERDF funding over the next 6 years, €180 million of which is being directed to Northern Ireland.”
The Taoiseach added that throughout the Island ‘we have worked together, and with Scotland and Wales on Interreg projects, supporting our cohesion and our infrastructure – including, very recently, the upgrade of the Enterprise Train service between Belfast and Dublin’.
“And the farmers of Ireland, North and South, have benefited hugely from the Common Agricultural Policy.
While in monetary terms, all of that EU investment has been important, perhaps more important has been the people to people connections we have built.
There are the ever stronger links between communities, whether travelling on roads or across bridges built with EU assistance, or learning each other’s culture in places such as Derry’s Siege Museum, which received significant grant assistance from the European Union”.
The Taoiseach said that with the building work for the new UU campus going on, ‘we can see in a very literal way how the strong foundations of peace are giving rise to a bright and dynamic future for the North’.
“It is another example of how the European background has been an important part of that process – with this project directly benefiting from financing from the European Investment Bank.
“The EU also makes an important input to the third level sector through the Erasmus programme and Horizon 2020. Many students and staff from this University have participated in the Erasmus programme, bringing European students to Northern Ireland and offering that fantastic opportunity to Northern Irish students to spend time studying in another EU location. Overall, over 3,000 students from the south and over 500 students and staff from the North have benefitted from taking part in this programme”.
Horizon 2020 is the biggest EU Research and Innovation programme ever with nearly €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020) – in addition to the private investment that this money will attract.
“The research capacities of our universities have been financed and maximised through our shared membership of the EU, through the Horizon 2020 scheme for example. In terms of EU funding specifically for research and innovation, Northern Ireland benefitted from over €90 million under the various Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation between 2000 and 2013”.
“And we’re working together to boost these supports considerably. Under the current €80 billion Horizon 2020 programme, collaboratively we aim to jointly draw down some €175 million on North South projects, benefitting universities and students, business and jobs on both sides of the border”
The Taoiseach said that for Northern Ireland, ‘continued stability depends on the continued success of the peace process and access to the support and markets that have been an intrinsic part of EU membership for the North’.
“Our economies are closely-aligned because of our common membership of the single market. We have benefited from our joint access to a single market of 500 million people. It is so much easier for us to build on North South trade when we are both members of the European Union”.
The Taoiseach responded to claims by those advocating Leave, that there would be no border reinstated between the Republic and Northern Ireland.
“We are standing here today less than fifty miles from the United Kingdom’s only land border. Can anyone credibly suggest that nothing would change if that became the western border of the European Union ? We remember when it was a hard border. We remember the delays, the cost and the division. One of the most beneficial effects of the peace process and our common membership of the EU has been the virtual elimination of that border. Today many tens of thousands of people cross the border each day to work, to do business, to see family and friends, for tourism, for trade. This traffic is growing, in part because we have worked together, through Tourism Ireland, Intertrade Ireland, in common endeavours, to build links to our mutual benefit.
“It is hard to imagine life without this free-flow. It is the easiest way to manage our interlocking value chains, where 85% of Northern Irish milk is exported to the South. Where we have an all island electricity market. Where we have cross border workers, such as in Seagate or Norbrook, or Paypal or the Financial Services Centre in Dublin, drawing on the pool of skilled labour on both sides of the border”.
The Taoiseach said he couldn’t guarantee the Irish Government could keep the Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland which has never existed with one country in the EU and one out.
We would certainly do our utmost to preserve the Common Travel Area.
“But it is difficult to imagine a situation where there would be no controls or checks on the movement of goods if the UK left the EU.
Those who advocate for Leave simply cannot guarantee otherwise.
The simple fact would be that the border of the European Union would run from Dundalk to Derry.
No matter how successfully we negotiate any new arrangements, we all know that cannot be good for this island.
It is also important to recall the role of our common membership of the EU in developing co-operation in justice and security matters – for example through the European Arrest Warrant.
In this regard, too, we are better working together within the EU”.
Responding to the speech, Deputy Chair of EMNI, Ciaran Hanna, who was at the event, said the Taoiseach has made a spirited defence of the benefits to Northern Ireland by being members of the EU.
“The benefits to NI by EU membership was brilliantly outlined by the Taoiseach, and these advantages get lost in the debate and are ignored by those from Vote Leave. I also heard from the President of the Student Union at UU, who expressed concerns from his membership about the loss of research funding and the Erasmus programmes. He also said the loss of freedom of movement would really negatively affect his members.”
-Ciaran Hanna, EMNI