Northern Ireland

EU referendum: Brexit an 'act of wanton destruction' for NI economy, Sutherland says

Peter Sutherland Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Peter Sutherland said it was "incredible" that any politician could consider a so-called Brexit to be good for Northern Ireland

A vote for the UK to leave the European Union would be "an act of wanton destruction" of Northern Ireland's economic viability, a former head of the World Trade Organisation has said.

Voters will decide on the future of the UK's EU membership later this month.

Peter Sutherland said Northern Ireland would suffer more than any other part of the UK in the case of a Leave vote.

But Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers disagreed, saying it would create "fantastic opportunities".

Mr Sutherland, a European commissioner during the 1980s, helped to lay the groundwork for the European Single Market free trade area in goods and services.

He was also a director-general of the WTO, which deals with global trading rules, in the 1990s.

Speaking on the BBC's Sunday Politics Northern Ireland programme, he said a UK exit from the EU would cause a "grave, serious and prolonged period of great uncertainty".

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The agriculture industry and cross-border trade with the Republic of Ireland would suffer the consequences of a Leave vote, and foreign investors would overlook Northern Ireland and take their business to countries inside the EU, he claimed.

"Those who invest in Ireland, north or south, are doing so because it provides them with the manufacturing base to sell to the European Union," Mr Sutherland added.

"The uncertainty, the borders created by Britain leaving and the inevitable period of prolonged negotiation will lead to a drying up of investment.

"It is, to me, incredible that any political force in Northern Ireland could conceivably consider [the UK leaving the EU] could be a good thing for Northern Ireland."

Mr Sutherland also said UK exit from the EU - a so-called Brexit - would "create a border control requirement that we had thought banished to history".

He added: "If in some perverted way there is an ideological desire to recreate that border, it's an act that would be incredibly foolish and very damaging."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Theresa Villiers said the Irish border would continue to remain open in the event of a Leave vote

But Ms Villiers dismissed Mr Sutherland's views and those of "other so-called experts".

She said a withdrawal from the EU would be "great for Northern Ireland".

"It enables us to take back control of our own trade policies so that we can make deals not just with the European Union, but also with countries around the world where they have huge markets," Ms Villiers said.

"Those could create jobs and opportunities for young people.

"There's no reason why we can't press ahead pretty rapidly with trade deals with the rest of the world.

"It is the EU that's failing economically, not us."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Voters will decide on whether or not the UK remains an EU member later this month

Ms Villiers added that the UK is "effectively no longer an independent country" as a member of the EU.

"I think it's time we took back control over making our laws so we become an independent, self-governing country again."

And she said it is "in the interests of both the UK and Ireland" that the Irish border remained open in the event of a Leave vote.

"It's perfectly possible to manage an open border with the Republic of Ireland - we had one before we joined the EU, there's no reason why we can't continue with one after we leave."

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