Next month’s British referendum on EU membership is “by far” the single biggest issue in a generation for Irish business, according to Danny McCoy, chief executive of the business representative group Ibec.

Mr McCoy said Ireland and the UK were dynamic, open economies with growing populations – which put them at odds with mainland Europe.

The likelihood was that the UK was going to become the Europe’s largest economy. Having such a large, dynamic economy leave the EU would constitute a huge blow for Ireland, the UK, and the rest of the EU, he told a conference in Dublin.

He said, given the deal negotiated by the UK with the EU in February, which comes into effect if Britain remains in the union, the fact was the world would not remain the same after the referendum, irrespective of the outcome of the vote.

The chief executive of Dawn Farm Foods, Larry Murrin, said he was “dumbstruck” by the comments that have been made to him by customers in the UK in relation to the referendum.

He said it was very prevalent in middle-class Britain to express concerns about immigration and the cost of social welfare, and not that the UK leaving the EU might result in very material changes in terms of trade.

He said it was hard to understand the motivation of politicians in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK who were advocating a vote to leave the EU. It almost felt as if they were playing to the populists and did not really mean what they were saying. “It is an extraordinary risk to take.”

The conference, on the legal implications of a potential Brexit, organised by Ibec and the Irish Centre for European Law (Icel), was told by Icel chair, former Supreme Court judge Fidelma Mackin, that something approaching 40,000 pieces of legislation would have to be visited by the UK and the EU in a two-year period if the UK voted to leave.

She said the UK had worked well and closely with the EU since it joined, and it was not clear why it was now having a serious referendum on a possible exit.

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