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Government urged not to make EU referendum a political football

Published 09/02/2016

Many Northern Ireland fans will travel to France to support their team
Many Northern Ireland fans will travel to France to support their team

Football will be the focus for voters if the Government opts to hold the EU referendum during Euro 2016, ministers have been warned.

Democratic Unionist deputy leader Nigel Dodds told the Commons the clash is "another good argument" for the EU referendum to be held later than June.

He a lso insisted extra costs will be incurred if the two events take place simultaneously due to the number of English, Welsh and Northern Irish fans travelling to France who will require postal and proxy votes.

The Belfast North MP later labelled claims that Irish republican terrorism could increase due to a British exit from the EU as "absurd nonsense".

Mr Dodds told MPs he would prefer the in/out referendum on Britain's membership of the EU to take place in autumn 2016 rather than June 23, which has been mooted by some MPs as the potential date.

Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish politicians are worried the elections in their countries scheduled for May 5 will be overshadowed by a June EU referendum.

They have also raised concerns about how the administrations in their countries will operate due to two elections being held so close together and believe it will affect the ability of parties to campaign.

A motion tabled by the DUP warns a June date risks "contaminating the result" of the EU referendum and calls for a "full and comprehensive" debate.

MPs heard a European Council meeting is also scheduled for June 23.

Speaking during an opposition day debate, Conservative Mark Spencer (Sherwood) told Mr Dodds: " I just wonder if your constituents will be paying more attention to the European Council meeting on June 23 or the Northern Ireland fixture against Ukraine on June 16, and actually maybe your constituents have got other things in their life rather than Europe as a constant feature in their psyche."

Mr Dodds replied: "(As DUP MP Gregory Campbell) says from a sedentary position, it's not an either/or - people are well capable of watching the football, listening to the political debate and doing other things.

"Let's face it, if we're going to have these issues just because the Government has chosen to foist the EU referendum on us at a time when the European Championships are taking place then people will want to concentrate on the football. That's another good argument for having this debate later.

"And given the fact that so many fans from England, Wales and Northern Ireland - sadly not Scotland - will be travelling to France, it's another good reason to avoid all the extra costs of postal votes and proxy votes and all the rest of it to have it on a different date."

Mr Spencer, intervening for a second time, added to Mr Dodds: "So given that you accept the good people of Northern Ireland can focus on more than one thing at once - they can focus on the football and politics - surely they can focus on whether they've got local elections and the European referendum at the same time?"

Mr Dodds replied: "It isn't an issue about the voters being confused or anything. It's a bit patronising to talk in those terms.

"I think it's the Government's deliberate choice to rush the referendum on that date."

Alex Salmond, the SNP's international affairs and Europe spokesman, noted Northern Irish voters are "quite capable" of concentrating on Euro 2016 and politics - joking the Scots "envy" this position due to Scotland's failure to qualify.

The former first minister added the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish administrations will be in purdah if the EU referendum is held on June 23 for 10 out of 13 weeks.

Mr Dodds a lso agreed with concerns about how the devolved administrations will operate, the ability of parties to campaign on both issues and a prolonged purdah period, adding media coverage will focus on EU issues rather than devolved ones.

He said he fears Prime Minister David Cameron is "rushing" the referendum rather than "getting it right".

Mr Dodds added: "I think personally the longer the debate the better, in terms of giving people the fullest and comprehensive debate, but I personally would be content to have the referendum in the autumn.

"We don't have to go until the end of 2017 but we certainly should go beyond June and not have it enmeshed with the elections we have spoken about."

Addressing "scare stories" circulating, Mr Dodds said: "What I do not accept and can hardly believe has happened from the mouths of serious figures who really should know better is the sort of absurd nonsense that somehow a British exit from the EU could in itself precipitate the rise of Irish republican terrorism again.

"It's hard to know what's worse about claims like these - that they're criminally irresponsible or that they're logically fatuous.

"Brexit will neither cause republican terrorism nor make any difference to it.

"It's cause, wrong and bad as it is, is Northern Ireland's membership of the United Kingdom - democratically decided and settled - not the UK's membership of the EU.

"So those in recent weeks who have claimed terrorism will be encouraged or facilitated by a leave vote in the EU referendum are peddling scare stories of the very worst nature, and I can only hope they are already ashamed of them and will not repeat them again."

For the Government, Cabinet Office Minister John Penrose reiterated no date has been chosen for the referendum - with MPs needing to vote on this matter.

He added a six-week buffer with May 5 elections is assured.

Mr Penrose said: "To make a statement of the blindingly obvious, the date for the referendum is not yet set.

"As the Prime Minister has been consistent in saying, it's renegotiation and then referendum - the renegotiation is not yet complete and so there is no referendum date as yet either."

The Conservative frontbencher also told MPs: "Europe is one of those issues which may be extremely exciting to a small number of people - maybe extremely exciting to a small number of people in this place and in the half a mile around us.

"But if we bang on about Europe, to use a phrase, for far too long then I think we run a risk which is to start turning people off the idea of this whole issue - important though it is.

"And having a decent period of time, one which we use to decide general elections, is something which the country is used to, it's something which the electorate is used to, it gives plenty of time for a full and in-depth discussion of the issues that need to be covered but without necessarily boring everybody to tears, and turning everybody off by the time we get to the ballot box."

Meanwhile, the SNP's Carol Monaghan warned that a mooted June 23 referendum would fall at the start of Scottish school holidays, meaning many parents would be abroad during the vote.

Holding a vote like this during English school holidays would be "unthinkable", the Glasgow North West MP added.

Intervening in Mr Penrose's speech, Ms Monaghan said: "The Scottish schools are about to go on holiday at that point and many of the electorate will be either planning or starting to take their holidays - the 22nd in some local authorities will be the date.

"It's unthinkable to have a vote of such importance during English school holidays, yet this vote could actually take place during Scottish school holidays."

For Labour, shadow foreign minister Pat Glass insisted the Government should get on with having a vote as businesses face risks caused by the uncertainty around Britain's EU membership.

Ms Glass said: "There are clearly risks to business of delay and those risks get greater the longer the delay goes on.

"There are very good arguments to support the view that as soon as the Government's renegotiations are complete they should get on with having the referendum and end this uncertainty, which is bad for the whole of the UK, for jobs, growth, investment and for working people."

Claims by the DUP that the result of the referendum would be "contaminated" if it is held in June were also entirely without foundation in evidence, Ms Glass said.

The Labour frontbencher suggested that the Eurosceptic DUP may be against an early vote because it favours the campaign to Remain in the EU.

She said: "Moving on again to the motion it says that a needlessly premature date risks contaminating the result.

"In what way would a referendum five months from now contaminate the result? If there's evidence holding a referendum on a specific date - whether that's June 2016 or September, or April 2017 - would in any way contaminate the result, or that there's a greater or lesser risk of electoral fraud, then let's see it.

"Because I haven't seen any evidence of this so I can only assume that what is meant by that statement is that a shorter campaign is more likely to lead to a stronger Remain vote."

Ms Glass added: "I for one believe that the people of the UK are perfectly capable of making the important decision in late June, a month and a half after local elections.

"To suggest otherwise in my view is patronising and disrespectful."

Alex Salmond, the former first minister of Scotland, argued that the rumoured referendum date of June 23 should be ruled out to avoid clashing with local elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

"People on the opposite benches don't seem to think that is a clinching argument," he said.

"Of course it's a clinching argument if we have a respect agenda encompassing the four component parts of the United Kingdom."

He quoted the poetry of Dr Seuss as he asked ministers to rule out the date.

"We are not trying to get him to name the day," he said.

"We are trying to get him to name when the day is not going to be.

"It is a question of Calculatus Eliminatus, if I could commend them to the poem: 'When you've mislaid a certain thing, keep your cool and don't get hot.

"'Calculatus Eliminatus always helps an awful lot. The way to find a missing something is to find out what it's not.'

"We are merely trying to get the Government to exclude June 23 because it conflicts with the important elections taking place in three out of the four nations of this United Kingdom."

Mr Salmond also commented on the "thoroughly depressing start" to the referendum campaign as he attacked suggestions that leaving the EU could lead to migrant camps similar to the ones in Calais being set up in the UK.

He said: "The truth is, of course, it doesn't matter. It would take at least five years to withdraw from the European treaties. By then we could have 10 times the number of refugees or indeed we could have none at all.

"No one knows how it would affect the bilateral arrangements between Britain and France.

"It is a pointless, pathetic, puerile debate, typical of what looks like it is going to be a depressing campaign - the political equivalent I would suggest of a no score draw."

Mr Salmond accused David Cameron of "gambling this country's entire European future on his sham negotiation and this shame of a campaign".

Paul Maynard, the Tory MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, said: "This is one of those important issues in the life of my constituents that passes the 'stop-me-in-the-street' test.

"If I'm out shopping in my local Sainsbury's, I'm already being asked what I think about this issue," he said.

"The notion that we can some how say the campaign doesn't start until we, the politicians, say it starts is, I think, rather naive.

"That campaign has started."

Mr Maynard said that "now is the time and we need to move as fast as we possibly can" towards a vote.

"My constituents are perfectly capable of thinking about it for themselves and they are desperate to have this vote," he said.

Iain Stewart, the Tory MP for Milton Keynes South, stressed that the decision on when the vote should take place must take into account a variety of factors.

He said: "There is a delicate balance to be struck between allowing a sufficient period of time for all the arguments made by both sides in the campaign properly to be explored and challenged and not having so elongated a campaign time that we either bore the electorate to death or create such a period of uncertainty that it is unhelpful for our economy."

DUP's Ian Paisley (North Antrim) said it was "absolutely essential" to have a full, frank, proper but considered debate about all of the issues.

He said: "A quick, rushed referenda will only threaten to present a debate to the public that is shaped in the most basic of arguments, that of Johnny Foreigner versus what will we get out of the EU, that is not the way to have this debate and unfortunately it appears that it's in the Government's interests to have a debate shaped in that base argument."

Mr Paisley said having limited time for a debate meant not being able to deal with issues affecting constituents such as "trade, the rural economy, the social agenda and immigration".

Tory Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) intervened stating: "Isn't the worry of the stay in side (is) that they haven't got enough disinformation and nasty scares to last until September."

Mr Paisley added: "So we are expected to be fed a diet for the next number of weeks that is based upon soundbites not upon substance."

Tory Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) argued that to suggest a longer period of separation was needed from the May elections was "frankly patronising" and a period of at least six weeks from elections until the referendum was more than an adequate time.

SNP MP Stephen Gethins (North East Fife) said a thorough democratic test "does not just mean rushing this referendum within six weeks, it means having a balanced and fair opportunity to debate this important issue".

Tory David Rutley (Macclesfield) argued there would be enough time for people to think and enough information for them to make up their minds.

He spoke about a time when he was rushing to a meeting and ran the wrong way up a down escalator in a Leeds shopping centre.

He said: "Rushing is when you're having to deal with decisions within split seconds, and I can assure the House here, this is not about rushing, this is about having a conversation and a debate over weeks and indeed months."

The DUP's motion was defeated by 286 votes to 70, majority 216.

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