Why North Antrim voters show the highest support for Brexit in the North
‘It wasn’t just about identity and it wasn’t just about whether NI remains part of the UK’
Flags flying on the streets of Ballymena. Photograph: Press Eye
As things stand, the 30,938 people in North Antrim who voted to leave the European Union will see that aspiration become a reality in two months’ time.
North Antrim was the Northern Ireland parliamentary constituency most in favour of exiting Europe, with 62.2 per cent of those who voted in the June 2016 referendum supporting Leave compared to the 44.2 per cent average across the North as a whole.
The constituency also had a slightly higher percentage of pro-Brexit voters than Blaenau Gwent, statistically the most anti-EU area in Wales, in which 62 per cent backed exiting. Meanwhile, in Moray – the voting area in Scotland most in favour of getting out of Europe – only 49.9 per cent of voters supported Leave.
In England, the port town of Dover had the same proportion of Leave voters as North Antrim while in Boston, the UK’s most pro-Brexit place, 75.6 per cent of voters backed the Leave campaign.
Three years on from the referendum, for many in North Antrim – the DUP’s heartland – the desire to leave has not diminished, despite the likelihood of a no-deal departure on October 31st.
In a 2019 UK-wide online petition calling for the article 50 process (which triggered Britain’s formal EU exit) to be revoked, North Antrim was the constituency in Northern Ireland which had the fewest number of signatories.
“They voted to leave. It wasn’t as if we will half leave, we will partly leave, we will leave bits of it. It was very clear, we wished to leave the EU, every aspect of it,” North Antrim’s MP Ian Paisley Jnr said.
But why did almost two-thirds of voters in this rural Northern Ireland constituency support Brexit?
North Antrim has only ever been represented at Westminster by unionist MPs and, from 1970 onwards, the seat has been held exclusively by members of the Paisley family. As the founder of both the Free Presbyterian Church and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the late Rev Ian Paisley’s fire and brimstone language translated seamlessly from the pulpit to politics.
His forceful opposition to the civil rights movement and republicanism in the 1960s represented a fresh, defiant style of unionism that threatened the Tory-affiliated brand – the stance that, since the creation of the Northern Irish state in 1921, had dominated the country’s politics in every practical sense.
Revd Paisley first ran for the UK parliament in 1970, winning 41.2 per cent of the vote in North Antrim. When Ian Paisley Jnr took over the reins from his father in 2010, he won 46.4 per cent of the vote.
His share dropped marginally to 43.2 per cent at the 2015 general election, just over a year before the Brexit vote, but this increased in 2017, a year after the EU referendum, to 58.9 per cent.
The success of the DUP in the 2017 general election – when it won 10 parliamentary seats – put the pro-Brexit party in a position to establish a confidence-and-supply agreement with the Conservative Party which, under Theresa May’s leadership, needed DUP support in order to establish a working majority in the House of Commons.
In return for enabling May to form a government, the DUP secured an additional £1 billion for Northern Ireland to be spent over the course of five years. This resulted in the development of an intimate working relationship between the parties.
Boris Johnson attended the DUP party conference last year and in July, soon after he became prime minister, he held a private dinner with senior figures in the party. Meanwhile, leading Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg attended a fundraising event for the DUP earlier this year in Ballymena, the town where Paisley’s constituency office is located.
Two-thirds of Ballymena’s residents identify as Protestant, according to the 2011 census, and territory is marked out with Union flags, loyalist paramilitary murals and flags in support of Soldier F, who faces charges over the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings in Derry. There are also republican areas in Ballymena where posters commemorating the 1981 hunger strikers can be found on display.
You have people who know nothing about farming telling you what you should be doing and I don’t agree with it
Asked what drove support for Brexit in his constituency, Paisley says: “I’d say about 60 per cent of the reason people voted leave was economic and about 40 per cent of it was emotional.”
He said it is a unionist constituency and the people are proud of their Britishness, but that the Leave campaign was also about establishing trade relationships.
“I’ve worked in this constituency for over 20 years now and there isn’t a week goes by that I haven’t had a complaint from farmers about the operation of the Common Agricultural Policy,” he added. “After 40 years of experience of working the policy, most farmers said, ‘we’ve had enough of this, this is our chance to say yay or nay to this policy’ and they voted against it.”
Robert Hanna (42) is a pro-Brexit farmer from North Antrim. His father bought the land about 30 years ago and he currently has 70 cows and about 60 sheep.
“The EU want you to jump through so many hoops in order to do the job that I felt, and still feel, we would be better off doing without the hoops,” he says. “The red tape which they impose is silly and it makes farming difficult. You have people who know nothing about farming telling you what you should be doing and I don’t agree with it.”
Earlier this year, Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) president Ivor Ferguson said he feared 50 per cent of sheep farmers could go out of business because of Brexit. He had previously said that a no-deal Brexit would be “catastrophic” for the agricultural industry.
Hanna does not agree.
“I would take no-deal at this stage. At the end of the day, Germany are still going to want to sell John Deere tractors to the UK.
“All of these other European countries too, they need to trade with us. Okay, it might be difficult for a year if there is no-deal but we’ll get there.
“The farmers I talk to all voted leave and they still want it. I heard an UFU representative in the media recently saying he speaks for 11,000 farmers here who are against Brexit. I would like to get speaking to that man to tell him that he doesn’t speak for me.”
North Antrim suffered some significant pre-Brexit economic hits with the loss of more than 1,600 jobs following the closures of Michelin tyre factory and JTI Gallaher’s cigarette factory – both in Ballymena.
JTI Gallaher, which at its peak employed about 2,000 people, announced its withdrawal from Northern Ireland to eastern Europe in 2014. It finally closed its doors in October 2017.
In November 2015, Michelin broke the news that it would cease production at its Ballymena site in April of last year, blaming high energy costs as a contributing factor with cheaper options available in Europe. The closure led to about 850 people losing their jobs.
Ballymena man Rodney Quigley, who was elected as an independent unionist councillor this year, lost his job at Michelin.
“Ballymena was a vibrant town. JTI Gallaher and Michelin were two of the top businesses in Northern Ireland and there was never any chat of either of them closing,” he said. “Some shops have left the town as well. If you said 10 years ago that those businesses would have disappeared from Ballymena, people would have laughed at you. Then, all of a sudden B&Q, JTI Gallaher and Michelin all closed. The impact hasn’t really hit home yet.”
When asked if he fears that a no-deal Brexit could further exacerbate economic problems in North Antrim, Quigley adds: “The decision had already been made to close Michelin in 2015, JTI Gallaher before that, so there’s no point in people scaremongering. Maybe after Brexit we might be in a better position in that regard.
We shouldn’t be ramming a Union Jack down people’s throats. We want people to be comfortable to live in Northern Ireland
“I can see why there are arguments for both sides but, ultimately, I think the UK was paying £390 million [a week] into the EU to get very little out. I’m an optimist, I think that if we leave the EU there will be more opportunities for investment because there will be fewer restrictions on business.”
There have been concerns about the impact a no-deal Brexit could have on peace and stability in Northern Ireland.
A former loyalist prisoner, who asked not to be named, says he voted Remain.
He now helps to run a community project in Ballymena which he considers to be on the progressive wing of loyalism. It works with people who he said had “various roles in defence of unionism and the state” during the conflict.
“There’s still a very strong, fundamental religious Protestant community here – the Free Presbyterian element. Those people, biblically, would see it that we shouldn’t be in the EU. That has been part of sermons over the years,” he said.
“Certainly, within fundamental Protestant thinking, some people think the EU is the beast mentioned in the Book of Revelations.”
Ian Paisley Snr once referred to the EU as a “beast ridden by the harlot Catholic Church”.
“That mix of religion and politics is still very strong in North Antrim,” the ex-prisoner added. “We are very polarised, as many communities are, but I think absolutely, Brexit reflected the influence of identity politics here and in Northern Ireland more widely.
“I think identity and that broader feeling that ‘we are British’ fuelled support for Brexit here. Also, within loyalism, I think there was an element who thought Brexit would strengthen the union. I think that element might not even be comfortable with the Good Friday [Belfast] agreement and power-sharing.”
The DUP opposed the Belfast Agreement in 1998. The party refused to enter into power-sharing with Sinn Féin until 2007.
The former prisoner feels that the unionist leadership has failed to grasp how much the referendum result has unsettled the nationalist community in Northern Ireland – which could in turn weaken the union.
“We shouldn’t be ramming a Union Jack down people’s throats. We want people to be comfortable to live in Northern Ireland in the years to come and vote to remain in the union,” he says.
“The unionist mindset during the Troubles was about defending the Border. I remember in jail we used to say ‘if we get out, we should build a wall’ like Donald Trump. If somebody said to me 30 years ago, we would still be in the UK but there would be no Border I would have found it impossible.
It wasn’t only unionists who voted to leave but certainly, unionists are more attached to notions of British sovereignty than non-unionists
“I looked at the Free State as a hostile country. I looked at the gardaí and the Irish Army, big elements of them, as supporting the IRA’s aims. That was my mindset. But I now take a totally different view of where the Republic of Ireland stands.”
The man said that Sinn Féin’s support for Remain, during the referendum, made it difficult for many loyalists to support staying in the EU. He also said that many people in North Antrim “absolutely” take their lead from the DUP on political issues.
In the village of Ahoghill, local man John Kelly articulated the feelings of many throughout the UK and Ireland regarding Brexit. “Don’t mention that f***ing word to me. Jesus, don’t start. I’ve heard enough about it,” he said.
Ahoghill is a 15-minute drive from Paisley’s constituency office in Ballymena. The North Antrim village hit the headlines in 2005 when a period of sustained anti-Catholic intimidation led to some people being forced to leave their homes.
Ahoghill falls in Bannside, a local council District Electoral Area (DEA) where two Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) candidates – Stewart McDonald and Timothy Gaston – got the most, and second most, first preference votes respectively in the May council election. Jim Allister is the party’s leader and founder as well as its sole Assembly representative. He defected from the DUP in 2007 and established the TUV due to his former party’s decision to enter into a power-sharing executive with Sinn Féin.
Allister remains a fierce critic of the Belfast Agreement and of the DUP and Sinn Féin. “Like the majority of my constituents I believe in national sovereignty and want to be part of a nation that can make its own laws, spend its own money and determine the interpretation of its own laws through its own courts – none of which you can achieve within the super state structures of the EU.”
Adding that North Antrim’s people are “very wise,” Allister also feels the idea that the Brexit vote in his constituency was all about identity has been “a bit overplayed”.
“It wasn’t only unionists who voted to leave but certainly, unionists are more attached to notions of British sovereignty than non-unionists,” he said.
Allister was once a Member of European Parliament (MEP) for the DUP. He stood in the May 2019 European election for the TUV on a pro-Brexit ticket, imploring voters to “do their duty” and ensure two out of the three seats went to unionist candidates.
Ending up with more than 60,000 first preference votes which placed him fifth in the overall, he didn’t get elected and, for the first time, just one unionist was returned to Europe from Northern Ireland – the DUP’s Diane Dodds.
Dodds’s stance on Brexit mirrors that of her party. The other two Northern MEPs – Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson and Alliance’s Naomi Long–- are anti-Brexit.
Valerie Quinn is a senior project manager at a computer software company.
Rooted in the North Antrim marching band scene, Quinn became a member of a band from Clough, outside Ballymena, when she was 13 before later joining Dunloy Accordion Band, which she played with for 17 years. She also played in the Portglenone based Killycoogan Accordion Band for six years.
The 48-year-old now has a 13-year-old son with her partner of 20 years. She is the chairwoman of a Facebook group called the Ulster Bands Forum, which has more than 16,000 likes. Quinn runs the group on a voluntary basis.
I voted Leave and all my family voted Leave. I don’t regret voting that. If it happened tomorrow again, I would vote the same
More than 80 bands are expected to take part in a parade in the North Antrim town of Ballymoney for Saturday’s Royal Black Institution demonstration.
When asked about how she thinks loyalist band members in North Antrim view Brexit, Quinn says: “The band scene is a really broad church. You have university lecturers, graduates, company owners, ministers and people who are unemployed. It has a broad range of views.
“I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of members of the band scene, and its supporters, would be in favour of Brexit. But I know many within the scene who would be Remain as opposed to Leave.
“I voted Leave and all my family voted Leave. I don’t regret voting that. If it happened tomorrow again, I would vote the same.”
Quinn also says that many people she knows are generally supportive of the DUP’s approach to Brexit. “I know a lot of the politicians in the DUP. Maurice Bradley would be a good friend. I know Mervyn Storey as well. I know Arlene Foster too, through the band scene.”
She believes there was an identity aspect to the Brexit vote amongst band members in North Antrim. “It has been so clearly linked to the whole debate on a united Ireland. That in itself has raised concerns in the PUL [Protestant unionist loyalist] community.”
However, she added: “It wasn’t just about identity and it wasn’t just about whether Northern Ireland remains part of the UK or not. I don’t think it’s as simple as that.
“We have heard that people didn’t know what they were voting for. My experience is, particularly bandsmen and women, that people became informed.”
Quinn believes that many people in bands from North Antrim mistrust Sinn Féin’s position in relation to Brexit.
“It’s only natural to have those fears about a united Ireland vote,” she says.
“The parallel that I always draw is that if there was a Border poll tomorrow and the result wasn’t for a united Ireland there is a constant ability for re-voting until the decision suits a united Ireland. However, if it went the other way, there is never any opportunity to change that.”
The Detail (www.thedetail.tv) is an investigative news website based in Belfast and reports on issues of public interest including Brexit.