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Brexit still a big gamble for sceptics of unionism

Circumstances have changed radically since Ian Paisley compared the European Community to the Antichrist, but many unionists still seem uncomfortable with the EU, writes Alex Kane

Published 24/02/2016

Ian Paisley after voting in the European election in East Belfast
Ian Paisley after voting in the European election in East Belfast
Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson announce their European manifesto
Eurosceptic Enoch Powell

In the 1975 referendum the British electorate was asked the question: "Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?" In Northern Ireland the DUP, UUP (albeit not without reservations) and some loyalist paramilitary groups - along with Sinn Fein - lined up in favour of leaving. Alliance and the SDLP - supported by the Vanguard Unionist Party - backed the 'Yes' campaign.

On a low turnout of about 47% (one of the lowest in the UK), the Yes campaign won by 52%, the lowest winning margin of the four nations.

This time the DUP, TUV, Ukip and elements of the local Conservatives (along with Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, even though she probably won't make any speeches here) are in the 'Leave' camp. The UUP has still to make up its mind, although recent comments from Jim Nicholson MEP and Danny Kinahan MP suggest that it is not particularly hostile.

Leader Mike Nesbitt is keen to keep some distance between the UUP and DUP, so there may be some electoral advantage in adopting a neutral/pro stance rather than join most of the other unionist parties in wanting out.

The relationship between unionism and the Common Market/European Community/European Union has never been an easy one. In the early days Ian Paisley complained that it amounted to some sort of papal plot involving the Antichrist and selected prophecies from the Book of Revelation.

Of course, that didn't stop him seeking election to the new European Parliament in 1979 (he recognised a poll-topping platform when he saw one), even if it was on the very cynical approach of "milking the cow dry" in terms of financial support for Northern Ireland. The Euro elections did more for the rise of Paisley and the DUP than almost anything else.

The UUP stance in 1975 was largely steered by Enoch Powell's - then MP for South Down - very personal antipathy to the entire project and his belief that "a growing European constitutional entity was incompatible with parliamentary sovereignty. You can have one or the other, but not both".

Powell was a key figure in the national 'Out' campaign, along with people like Tony Benn and Michael Foot, but the divisive nature of their political beliefs seems to have cost their side votes, with the Yes camp winning by 67% to 33%.

The other key element at the heart of the Northern Ireland debate in the 1975 referendum was the overall state of unionism. The shock of losing their parliament in 1972 still rankled, while the dust from the collapse of the Sunningdale Assembly and the accompanying Ulster Workers' Council strike the previous year was still settling around them.

Unionism had huge trust issues with Westminster and the Labour Government at the time (and this, of course, was a time when Labour was still regarded as a united Ireland party) and feared that some sort of shift of power away from London would also undermine their own influence if the UK and Republic of Ireland were to build a new political relationship within the new European Community.

Ironically, Sinn Fein - even though it wasn't the electoral force it is now - also feared that a growing, friendlier relationship between London and Dublin would damage it, as well as creating new difficulties for its own Irish unity project.

The SDLP, still working with John Hume's "agreed Ireland" script, supported the UK remaining in because it believed that a better relationship between London and Dublin would suit its electoral and strategy purposes.

In other words, like so many other issues in Northern Ireland down the years, the 1975 referendum debate had less to do with any European ideal and much more to do with how nationalists and unionists interpreted it in terms of local interests.

This time there will be no mention from the DUP about the Book of Revelation, the Beast, Antichrist symbology, or the rebooting of the Holy Roman Empire (all of which were raised by Paisley at one point or another). Those days have gone.

And yet - as can be seen by its quick and negative response to David Cameron's deal - the DUP is as opposed to the EU as it was to the EC in 1975. Party policy is to leave, even though members and supporters will be allowed to make up their own minds.

Its primary argument, which tends to be led by Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson, is financial and insists that the UK would be better off standing on its own two feet. It doesn't seem to have any specific answers to questions about payments to the farming community here other than saying that "it's our own money and we can decide what to do with it". But the DUP won't be making that decision and it can't guarantee that farmers - and other businesses here - won't be worse off. So, I suspect that a rural base, which may be voting for the DUP in the Assembly election, will be in the remain camp in the referendum.

Both the TUV and Ukip could have similar difficulties. Yes, they can play the sovereignty and "it's our own money" cards, but they can't provide financial guarantees to anyone here (neither party is in government anywhere) and nor can they magic some sort of "sovereignty" out of thin air if the UK does vote in favour of Brexit.

Northern Ireland isn't England. It needs resources pumped in from elsewhere. And Northern Ireland will still have a mandatory, ill-at-ease-with-themselves Executive, so I'm not sure the sovereignty issue plays as well here as it will across England and Scotland.

I think it's also worth bearing in mind that unionists - even though they don't always show it - are not as unsettled as they were in 1975. Most of them accept that the Union is pretty secure, their fear of the Republic has dissipated, they're happy enough with the excellent relationship between London and Dublin and, generally speaking, the status quo may seem preferable to a whole host of new difficulties that could be thrown up by Brexit.

Again, that should make it more difficult for those unionist parties supporting Brexit.

Yet, recent polling by LucidTalk (available on the Belfast Telegraph website) indicates that 63.6% of DUP/UUP/TUV/Ukip/PUP/NI Conservatives would be minded to vote for the Brexit option - figures which may give the UUP less room for manoeuvre. Which suggests that unionists, broadly speaking, still have huge concerns about the EU project.

What those specific concerns are is hard to judge - maybe they want to be seen as echoing the scepticism of fellow Ukip, Conservative "unionists" in England and Scotland - but it probably means that eurosceptic unionist parties here are, in electoral terms, on the right side of the debate.

That said, it strikes me that a lot of the hard, awkward questions about Brexit have still to be answered by those parties.

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