A UK referendum on EU membership – A view from Northern Ireland

29 August 2013

"There is an understandable tendency in much of the debate on the merits or otherwise of the United Kingdom’s continued membership of the European Union to cast the UK as an island member cut off geographically from the rest of the EU. When the ‘EU referendum’ takes place, most of the electorate will undoubtedly feel that sense of geographic separation. For the less than three per cent of the electorate that lives in Northern Ireland, the reality will be – and indeed already is – somewhat different. Thanks to a 360km border with Ireland, the rest of the EU is on its immediate doorstep.

The prospect of a UK withdrawal from the EU will therefore be seen very differently by voters in Northern Ireland compared to their counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales. Most political parties in Northern Ireland, with a few exceptions, generally adopt policy positions, particularly on closer integration, that would in most parts of the EU see them placed squarely in the Eurosceptic camp. But, the reality of a shared border with the rest of the EU means that their Euroscepticism does not generally translate into an advocacy of withdrawal.

Leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin – the two main political parties in Northern Ireland – have already stated that they are opposed to the UK leaving the EU. Given the vocal Euroscepticism of the DUP and its MPs’ support in the House of Commons for an in-out referendum, this may come as a surprise to those in favour of withdrawal. The same can be said of Sinn Féin, which south of the border in referendum campaigns has vigorously opposed successive rounds of EU treaty reform, notably Nice and Lisbon. Sinn Féin supports continued UK membership of the EU.

The link with the rest of Ireland is key. And it is a factor that simply does not resonate elsewhere in the UK debate. For voters in Northern Ireland its importance cannot be understated. A major fear is that UK withdrawal from the EU would seriously disrupt cross-border trade – which accounts for around a quarter of Northern Ireland’s non-UK imports and exports. Disruption would threaten to damage Northern Ireland’s already fragile economy. Moreover, the uncertainties surrounding withdrawal would undoubtedly impact on foreign investment into the region. All five major parties – DUP, Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and the Alliance Party – share the concern that were the UK to leave the EU, the local  economy of Northern Ireland would most likely suffer.

Such concerns are reinforced by the fact that withdrawal would result in the loss of a significant amount of grant funding, whether it be for the farming community – which still accounts for more than 3% of employment in the region – or more generally for Northern Ireland as a post-conflict society. Currently EU funding for the agricultural sector amounts to more than €300 million per annum, including more than €250 million per annum through the Single Farm Payment system. And although annual funding under successive Peace programmes has declined, Peace IV (2014-20) is still expected to be worth in the region of €150 million. Added to this, Northern Ireland benefits from other EU programmes, including R&D and INTERREG funding, all of which would most likely be lost if the UK left the EU. Whether HM Treasury in London would find replacement funding is very much open to question.

Yet it is not simply economic factors that would weigh heavily on the minds of voters in Northern Ireland in a UK referendum on ‘Europe’. The shared border with the Republic of Ireland is of enormous symbolic and practical importance to voters in Northern Ireland. A current fear is that withdrawal could see the re-imposition of customs controls as well as border controls more generally. For Sinn Féin supporters in particular, as well as many other nationalist voters and others more generally, any measure that reverses the ‘de-bordering’ process would be resisted. Worst-case scenarios envisage a re-partitioning of Ireland thus undermining efforts to secure a united Ireland.

At a more practical level, concerns are already being voiced about the implications of withdrawal for cross-border workers, especially regarding the transfer of social security payments, and cross-border cooperation. The wisdom of the UK government’s recent decision to opt-out of more than 130 measures concerning EU-level police and judicial cooperation on criminal matters, notably the European Arrest Warrant, has been openly challenged by Northern Ireland’s Justice Minister and senior police officials. And concerns have also been raised about the future of the cross-border Special EU Programmes Body that oversees the implementation of INTERREG and PEACE funding. Its existence is predicated on both Ireland and the United Kingdom being EU member states. Voices can also be heard questioning whether the broader process of north-south cooperation enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement could continue unharmed if the UK were to withdraw from the EU.

What economic and political impacts a UK withdrawal from the EU would have on Northern Ireland would obviously depend very much on the post-membership arrangements put in place for UK-EU relations. In all likelihood, considerable efforts would be made by UK and EU negotiators to retain as much as possible of the status quo and minimise the disruption. Any Irish government would undoubtedly be making the case for retaining the levels of free movement across the border that already exist.

However, the uncertainties conjured up by the possibility of a future outside the EU are not ones many voters in Northern Ireland are likely to welcome. Consequently, what may at first sight appear to be one of the most Eurosceptic regions of the United Kingdom, could in an in-out referendum deliver one of the clearer majorities for staying in the EU."

David Phinnemore is Professor of European Politics at Queen’s University Belfast.