By Paul Hagan ///
On Monday the DUP’s leader and Northern Ireland’s First Minister finally came out, he admitted that Northern Ireland is better-off within the EU and warned of the effect on the economy and foreign direct investment to Northern Ireland, especially from the US, if the UK left the EU. Not astounding in itself but it came just four days after the same DUP had co-sponsored a debate in House of Commons on Cameron’s promised referendum on EU membership. It would seem to any outsider or anyone trying to follow this position logically that the policy of Northern Ireland’s leading party towards Europe is one of having a vote and then campaigning for a ‘yes’ vote. That is something very few DUP members have any experience of in any referendum!
Some have suggested that Northern Ireland might actually be fertile ground for UKIP. The visit of Nigel Farage this week to the province, seemed to pass-off amicably, especially in comparison to his treatment in Edinburgh. However despite having put-up numerous candidates they currently have only 1 MLA in the Assembly and 1 Councillor across NI and have made little impact so far.
What is more in evidence is how mainstream unionist parties continue with hostile attitudes towards the EU, even though it has benefited Northern Ireland (and the UK). In the same statement as saying Northern Ireland belonged in Europe Robinson marked himself out again as being in the “Eurosceptic classification”. He wouldn’t be alone in his party or in unionism in general. Some DUP MPs used Friday’s Commons debate to air staunchly anti-EU sentiments with Nigel Dodds calling the EU “an overbearing anti-democratic superstructure that has intruded upon almost every aspect of our lives”. In the European Parliamnet Mr Dodds’ wife frequently takes the UKIP whip unless voting-on agricultural and fishing issues – seen as key beneficiary issue for the province - are discussed.
The Ulster Unionists for their part have long brandished their own eurosceptic credentials, going back to 1975 when they campaigned for departure from that other union. Jim Nicholson, the long-serving UUP Member of the European Parliament, followed the Conservative Party into the fringe right-wing grouping of the ECR, leaving the mainstream centre-right EPP group believing it too ’federalist’, having made a similar shift to the eurosceptic right in 1997. This was not entirely unprecedented as his predecessor John Taylor moved-over from the same political group to the controversial, far-right ‘European Right’ group in the 1980s. Jim Allister, when an independent Unionist MEP, was comfortable conversing with fellow independent Ashley Mote who also aligned himself with the French National Front.
The origins of this hostility aren’t clear. Robinson admitted that Northern Ireland had “done well” out of the EU’s still generous pot of peace funding. The EU’s Peace Programme of funding has given hundreds of millions of Euros to Northern Ireland over the past few decades. And it’s hardly as if EU funding can be accused of going only or mostly to the other side. Last year the Orange Order was awarded a grant of almost £900,000 from the European Union to help address the legacy of the Troubles in the Protestant community.
Anti-European bias can’t even be framed as a case of simply opposing what the other side supports. While Plaid and the SNP are perhaps the UK’s biggest euro-enthusiasts the main nationalist party in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein, adopts a comparatively critical stance towards the EU. They have campaigned for a ‘no’ vote in almost every single EU referendum in the South of Ireland and are still part of the Post-Communist, Nordic Green Left which is largely opposed to much contemporary EU policy. While Holyrood and Cardiff rarely ever hear euro-critical voices it’s only the Alliance Party and a shrinking SDLP that are unambiguously pro-European at Stormont.
How this can be explained is uncertain, it is hardly a legacy of the Enoch Powell-inspired position in the 1975 referendum, now so very long ago (as Eurosceptics continue to point out). Whatever the cause of Unionism’s problem with the other ‘Union’ it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. But if the First Minister gets his wish of a referendum, will he get his wish of an ‘in’ result? To answer this he may his ask his Prime Minister, who may have to wrestle with the exact same question in 2017.