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Familiar battlelines drawn in EU debate

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 26/05/2016

It is a poll with far-reaching consequences, but the referendum debate on the UK remaining within or leaving the European Union has yet to catch fire in Northern Ireland
It is a poll with far-reaching consequences, but the referendum debate on the UK remaining within or leaving the European Union has yet to catch fire in Northern Ireland

It is a poll with far-reaching consequences, but the referendum debate on the UK remaining within or leaving the European Union has yet to catch fire in Northern Ireland, certainly not in the way it is exercising minds in England, where immigration is the emotional touchstone in the arguments.

As if to prove yet again that the province is still a place apart in the UK, it seems from the survey results we carry today that there is a sectarian divide here on the issue, although that is less evident in the more affluent economic classes.

On the Protestant side opinion is sharply split, with 34% saying that the UK would be weaker if it left the EU and 28% arguing that it would be stronger. By contrast, Catholics appear more united, with 56% saying the UK would be weaker if it left and only 12% believing it would be stronger.

Of course, as the debate increases in intensity those figures could change. The DUP, the largest party in the new Assembly, is pro-exit and that opinion could change the minds of many unionist voters. On the nationalist side, Sinn Fein and the SDLP are both for remaining in the EU, so that part of the community should remain committed to that position.

While it is clear that at this stage the majority opinion is for remaining within the EU, there is still a significant number of don't knows. The complexity of the arguments for staying in or leaving no doubt contributes to this number and it remains to be seen if those leading the Remain and Leave campaigns can distil their messages to an extent which will convince voters of the validity of their position.

Given the importance of agriculture to the province and the large subsidies which come to farmers from the EU, it is somewhat surprising that only 17% of respondents to the survey viewed the loss of these grants if the UK leaves as a major concern.

Indeed, the fear of security being compromised as a result of leaving the EU polled nearly as highly as subsidies in the minds of those surveyed, with 13% fearing such a result.

However, it is the economy which is proving the number one issue, with 44% saying the UK would have fewer economic benefits if it left.

That was by some distance the highest concern of those surveyed and undermining that position will be one of the major obstacles facing those favouring a Brexit.

It will be interesting to see how the parties here fire up their campaigns, or if they do.

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