Brexit: Little love for EU in North as parties stake out positions

Voters in NI expressing fears about farming subsidies, immigration and Border controls

Kinley Tener's family is split down the middle. His father is adamant that he will vote to leave the European Union. But his younger brother, who works on the family farm full-time and fears losing the subsidy he receives from Brussels, is a firm advocate of staying in.

“He even winds us up by saying he’s going to vote Sinn Féin because they’re on the side of the farmers,” says Tener, a 28-year-old unionist from Clogher, Co Tyrone. “People are torn. I would say our family is fairly typical.”

As he serves customers in the butcher’s shop he runs on the main street in Clogher, a sleepy rural village where agriculture and engineering are the chief employers, Tener says he will probably vote to leave, if principally as “a protest” against the political establishment.

“I know I won’t win, but at least maybe it’ll make Britain sit up and take their own constitution and things a wee bit more seriously,” he says.


Uncertainty about the implications of a Brexit concern Tener. He would not like to see Border controls being introduced; his girlfriend studies in Dublin, he buys stock from the south and he and his friends socialise in Monaghan, where the nightclubs stay open later than in Enniskillen. Yet, on principle, he think withdrawal makes sense. He would like to see the UK negotiate its own trade agreements, and believes the UK contributes too much money to the bloc compared with what it receives. He is also concerned about immigration.

"A big issue is Turkey coming into the EU. There are far too many Syrians. They'll be straight in. I've got nothing against them per se, but it's bleeding Britain dry," he says. "If you go to Dungannon, because it's got three or four meat plants, the town itself I would say would be 70 per cent foreign nationals." (The most recent British census, in 2011, put the foreign-born population of Dungannon at 10.4 per cent,the highest share in Northern Ireland. )

An hour and a half away, in the unionist heartland of Ballymena, Co Antrim, Tener's views are widely shared. Dessie, who runs a craft shop on Mill Street, calls the EU a "parasitic monster" and says the sooner the UK leaves the better.

“To me, the money that goes into the EU is totally wasted,” he says. “They’re trying to make everybody equal, so they bring in the poor countries and take from the more wealthy countries to make the poorer countries rich. But the only way you can equalise is to equalise downwards.”

Dessie, who asks that his full name not be published, cites the Republic as an example of how sovereignty is being eroded.

“The Republic itself is not a republic – it’s almost annexed by America and the EU,” he says. “Who came in and told them how to do the finance? The Germans. They say they control their own country, but they don’t. They’re told how to control it. They’re told what to do.”


Opinion polls carried out in

Northern Ireland

in recent months suggest a majority of 53-55 per cent in favour of staying in the EU, with nationalists more likely than unionists to vote to remain. The SDLP and Sinn Féin are on side of remaining.

“The European Union is by no means perfect, and we are one of the most critical parties of the EU, but it’s quite clear that it would have a devastating impact on the island, having one part of the island in the EU and one part out,” says Daithí McKay, the Sinn Féin MLA for North Antrim. He cites agriculture and tourism, both of which are vital to the economy in his constituency, as sectors that would be badly hit by a Brexit.

Some republicans argue that UK withdrawal from the EU would make it easier for Sinn Féin to make the argument for Irish unity. But, according to the political commentator and columnist Alex Kane, the party may well have drawn the opposite conclusion.

"For Sinn Féin, there is this fear that if a hard, physical Border appeared again, some of their people would say: 'Hang on a minute – we're stuck in Stormont for the fifth Assembly in a row with a unionist First Minister, we're stuck with partition, we're stuck with Northern Ireland still existing, and now you tell us we've got the Border coming back," Kane says.

“At the minute, it makes perfect sense for Sinn Féin to talk about an all-Ireland agenda. That’s a much more difficult argument to sustain, from their point of view, if part of Ireland is no longer in the European Union. It becomes a more difficult sell for them. Oddly enough, for Sinn Féin at this stage, the status quo suits them perfectly.”

Whatever the rationale, Sinn Féin finds itself on the side of the main bodies representing the business and farming communities, with both the Northern Ireland arm of the Confederation of British Industry and the Ulster Farmers Union’ warning of the dire consequences of withdrawal.

When Londonderry Chamber of Commerce polled its members on the issue recently, it found 86 per cent support for staying in the EU, suggesting that among business leaders in the city, the issue transcends the political divide.

“Our members are making a business decision,” says Sinead McLaughlin, chief executive of the chamber.

As McLaughlin points out, Derry’s suburbs in three directions are in the Republic, and the local economy operates without a border. In Northern Ireland generally, 60 per cent of exports go to the EU and, of that, 37 per cent go to the Republic. In Derry, the reliance on the southern market is even greater.

“The fear is palpable here in the northwest that we could be sleepwalking into a Brexit,” she says. “It’s very clear that we in Northern Ireland benefit from being in the EU more than any other region in the UK. For us to leave would be catastrophic.”

In 1975, when the UK held its previous referendum on whether to leave the EU, 52 per cent of voters in the Northern chose to remain in the bloc despite both main unionist parties, the UUP and the DUP, calling for a vote to leave. This time the two parties have parted company on the issue.

The DUP, under new leader Arlene Foster, has joined the e campaign to leave, whereas the UUP, led by Mike Nesbitt, is for staying in. For both parties, no doubt reflecting divisions among their voters and members, the recommendation is more tentative than full-throated. A DUP statement announcing its stance said that "on balance" it recommended a vote to leave, but that the decision was "not one for parties but for every individual across the nation to determine". Similarly, the UUP said it believed "on balance" that Northern Ireland was better off remaining inside a reformed EU, adding: "The party respects that individual members may vote for withdrawal on June 23rd."

"I believe there is integrity in this quarrel," says the DUP MP Ian Paisley jnr. "If people want to remain, there is integrity in that argument. It will be ultimately a judgment call people have to make."

He is adamant, however, that the North would be able to secure more funding from London than it receives from Brussels and that claims of a sealed Border post-Brexit are nothing more than “a very deliberate fear tactic”.

Europe ‘broken’

The decision is partly economic, but also political, Paisley says. “I think Europe is broken. I look to Europe and I ask them: ‘Where is your answer to the immigration problem?’ They don’t have one. Where was their answer to the Falklands crisis? They didn’t have one. Where was their answer to Bosnia? They didn’t have one. We had to rely on the UN to win the peace. So Europe has taken the glory for a peaceful Europe, but it has played not part.”

Alex Kane, who is also a former director of communications with the UUP, believes that, just as the two main unionist blocs were unable to deliver their voters in the 1975 referendum, many unionists will ignore their advice this time.

“A lot of those small business people who would support the DUP and the UUP, and a lot of farmers, are not going to vote to leave the European Union unless they get some very firm copperfastened guarantees about what happens to the EU funding, what happens to the farmers,” he says.

Kane suggests that Nesbitt made a canny decision by backing the horse that is most likely to win, thereby allowing him to put “clear blue, white and red” water between his party and the DUP, whose traditional Eurosceptic position made its stance inevitable.

"There is that strain within unionism and Protestantism of standing on your own two feet, making your own decisions," he says. "It's that emotional appeal of sovereignty. They know as well as anyone that they still want to be part of Nato, they want to be involved in the World Trade Organisation, that they're tied down by other international laws, so the sovereignty argument is a bit of a busted flush to begin with. But there is this emotional tug of 'our people, our parliament, our nation'. They play it, but I think they play it knowing they're going to lose and not all that worried about losing. I think the DUP will heave an enormous sigh of relief [if Britain stays in the EU]. They'll be able to say, 'We stood up for the union, we stood up for sovereignty but, thank God, we don't have to take the consequences or our actions'."