Arlene Foster and TUV’s Jim Allister join Theresa Villiers in call for EU ‘out’ vote
Sinn Féin, SDLP and Alliance Party say Northern Ireland better in Europe
Recommending a vote to leave the EU: First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA
Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers has added an extra dimension to the Northern Ireland Brexit battleground with her decision to break with David Cameron and urge a “leave” vote in the UK’s referendum on EU membership scheduled for June.
Ms Villiers will have the Democratic Unionist Party and its leader, First Minister Arlene Foster, on her side during the campaign leading up to the poll on June 23rd. Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister also called for an “out” vote.
Three of the North’s five main parties, however – Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance Party – have declared for Europe, with Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness stating that his party will “campaign vigorously to stay in the EU”. The Ulster Unionist Party has yet to decide its position.
As Northern Secretary, Ms Villiers must walk something of a tightrope in administering David Cameron’s British government policy in Northern Ireland while also joining in the “leave” campaign. Both Mr McGuinness and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood raised questions about what her stance would mean for Northern Ireland.
Ms Villiers said she did not believe the EU system was “capable of changing in a way that would be the right option for us”. The “safer option” therefore was to quit Europe.
“In the decades ahead we face a European project that is ever more determined to integrate, to take more powers, and we could be outvoted many times over the years to come. So there is no stable status quo for us to cling to,” she said.
Ms Villiers, who previously served as an MEP for six years, said that Mr Cameron had won some concessions but that even with the deal “we will still be subject to the Court of European Justice, which may still do its best to unpick the deal that’s been agreed”.
First Minister Ms Foster said the DUP had always been Eurosceptic.
“In our view, we see nothing in this deal that changes our outlook. Therefore we will, on balance, recommend a vote to leave the EU,” she said.
Ms Foster also acknowledged that there could be different views on the EU among DUP supporters.
“As every voter has the opportunity to express a view, we fully expect that DUP members and voters will hold a range of differing personal views as to what is in the best interests of the United Kingdom. They are fully entitled to do so during what will be a momentous political debate about the direction of travel our nation chooses,” she said.
Deputy First Minister Mr McGuinness queried whether Ms Villiers had the best interests of Northern Ireland at heart in joining the “leave” campaign. Promising a vigorous Sinn Féin campaign to remain in the EU, he said the “island of Ireland has benefited greatly as a result of membership of the European Union. The EU has also been a key supporter of the progress made in the peace and political processes over the last two decades.”
SDLP leader Mr Eastwood said Ms Villiers did not represent Northern Ireland in relation to the referendum campaign and that “she must not attempt to speak on our behalf”.
“The simple fact is that the pick and mix of extremists and eccentrics in the ‘leave’ campaign have no Plan B,” he said.
“Arlene Foster and Jim Allister need to be challenged to outline, in detail, to our farming and business communities how their incomes will be maintained and protected outside of the European Union. How will farm incomes be secured and what trade conditions will businesses face? In the absence of these answers, all they are really offering is a blind jump into the unknown.”
An Ulster Unionist Party spokesman said its ruling executive would meet soon to decide on the party’s position. “We will move quickly to a decision,” he said.
Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson said: “A vote to exit the EU will leave our nation weak and divided. We must vote to stay in, so that we can build on the benefits of our membership.”
TUV leader and “out” campaigner Mr Allister said: “We have nothing to lose but our chains.”