Brexit worries as Northern Ireland hopes for a better future

"As somebody small, I would like to be part of something larger," says Chris Bennett as he ushers tourists from the Titanic museum onto his "wee red tram."

As operator of the tram inspired by the tramcars that ran around the shipyard in 1912, Bennett works "in the shadow of the Titanic Museum," which represents all that is forward-thinking and progressive about Northern Ireland.

In a city where the main tour used to be in a black taxi around the most notorious trouble spots, this magnificent six-floor building symbolizes a future in which the past is a source of pride, not conflict.

Bennett is proud of the fact that the Titanic was built in Belfast and of the city's heritage, but he feels that Northern Ireland would benefit from outside influences.

"I am against isolationism," he says. "We have had too much of that in the past."

While huge political progress has been made with the peace progress, many ordinary people feel that sectarianism still thrives in Belfast.

"It's still Catholics versus Protestants here," says Aaron Scott.

Pointing to his toddler son, he says: "I hope that will have changed by the time he grows up."

Scott plans to vote in Thursday's local elections.

"But I don't feel that there's anybody who has anything for us," he says. "I work in manufacturing, and jobs are being cut all the time. Everybody I work with wants to leave the EU, but I don't know whether this will be good for Northern Ireland. Jobs are the main issue for me."

Scott worries about his son's future employment prospects. "My main worry is about jobs in the manufacturing industry, and I'm afraid there'll be nothing here for my son, and he'll have to go across the water."

Northern Ireland has tended to vote along sectarian lines. Catholic nationalists vote for Sinn Fein and the SDLP, and Protestants vote for the Unionist parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) or the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP).

The DUP, the largest party in the Northern Irish assembly, is the only party in favour of leaving the European Union.

"Our politics has always been very insular," says Bryonie Reid, who lives on the picturesque North-east coast and plans to vote Green in the election.

Brexit is "significant as a worry for me," says Reid. "I would feel strongly enough to change my vote if I had to."

She feels that Northern Ireland would be much worse off outside the European Union and welcomes the broader context the European Union provides for Northern Ireland.

"For people in Britain, having Europe make decisions that impact them is a reason for wanting to leave the European Union," Reid says.

"We are peripheral and are used to having decisions made for us. I am happy for other EU countries to have an impact on our politics. With many countries moving to the right, having centrist to leftist politics within the EU is a positive influence on us."

Economically, Northern Ireland has a great deal to lose, too, according to Reid.

"There has been a lot of money pumped into Northern Ireland by the EU. This will not continue, as the rest of the UK will not be able to afford to give us this kind of support," she says.

"The European Union is good for Northern Ireland environmentally, in terms of protection of biodiversity, preventing the pollution of our rivers and on. The EU tends to be ahead of the UK in this regard."

Gavin Gerrard, who runs a small business along the border with the Republic, is another Northern Irish voter who feels that Brexit is an important issue when deciding for whom to vote. He feels that there has been too little debate about it in the rural area, where he lives and operates a campervan hire business.

"Nobody is really talking about it, and everybody is just concentrating on their day to day lives, but I would not vote for a candidate who is in favour of Brexit," he says.

"My business is not directly affected by Brexit. I trade in euros, and most of my clients come from Germany, and I am more affected by the exchange rate. But I feel it would be bad for Northern Ireland."

Last update: Wed, 04/05/2016 - 11:49
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