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UK playing for high stakes as vote on European future looms

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 22/02/2016

Michael Gove
Michael Gove

Very often the term “historic” is used to describe events which are anything but historic, but the UK referendum on June 23 to vote for leaving or staying within the European Union will be truly momentous for all concerned.

Already  the ‘In’ and ‘Out’ camps are lining up nationally as each side sets out its stall to people who are already committed or totally undecided.

The strains and fissures within British politics are already clear. The Prime Minister will fight his pro-EU campaign in the face of a very divided Cabinet and Tory party.

Some of the ‘Out’ campaign supporters are  political heavyweights, including Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, who finally made his views clear yesterday.

However, the campaign also contains some odd bedfellows, and David Cameron neatly summarised the diversity when, on the Andrew Marr BBC television programme, he asked if those who favour Brexit really wanted to be lumped together with Nigel Farage and George Galloway.

The Labour Party is broadly in favour of staying in, with its leader Jeremy Corbyn emphasising the need to protect the UK, and hoping — somewhat mysteriously — to encourage more “equality” within the EU.

In Northern Ireland there are wide differences of opinion also. Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State, is one of the six Cabinet ministers who are publicly campaigning to leave the EU, and she finds herself lined up with First Minister Arlene Foster and the DUP,  which also backs withdrawal.

However, it in turn is lined up against Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness and Sinn Fein, as well as the SDLP and Alliance. Surprisingly, at this stage, the UUP has still to declare its view on such a crucial issue.

The support from Villiers for withdrawal is noticeable in that she is Secretary of State for a part of the UK that has had the benefit of large peace-building finance from the EU, which has been an encourager of peace and also a diluting factor on the notion of sovereignty for nationalists.

The public mood here may reflect some disenchantment with the EU over issues such as human rights legislation, the challenge to British sovereignty, and migration. Without doubt there are some crucial areas which do need reform and renegotiation.

However, the vote here may depend finally on local issues. The DUP will point to the money that we pour into Europe — Nigel Dodds repeatedly claims that we put more in than we get out.

Nevertheless, if we do withdraw from Europe and turn off the tap, how will that affect the business community and the farmers,  many of whom are DUP supporters?

There is also the very real concern for unionists that an exit from the EU could lead to another Scottish Independence referendum, and the possible break-up of the UK.

There is also the danger that an exit from Europe will recreate border controls with the Irish Republic, leading perhaps to economic challenges of increased bureaucracy and other factors. At this stage it is almost impossible to predict the outcome of the referendum, but a myriad of concerns and possibilities lie ahead. These are high stakes indeed, and people will need to think carefully in the months ahead before they cast their vote on this important issue. There will be no second chance.

Online Editors

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