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After 41 years of shifting battlelines, the Brexit vote for Northern Ireland is a very tough one to call

In 1975 Northern Ireland, against predictions, decided by a thin majority to stay in the then European Economic Community. Will history repeat itself on June 23, asks James Greer

Published 23/05/2016

The UK public is going to the polls to decide our European future next month
The UK public is going to the polls to decide our European future next month

Next month's European referendum - called by a UK Government split on the issue and a Prime Minister proclaiming a timid renegotiation - politically has strong echoes of 1975.

In June 1975 the UK voted to maintain membership of the European Economic Community, the precursor of today's European Union. It was a campaign that produced bitter splits and unlikely alliances across the UK. Nowhere was this unease more striking than in Northern Ireland.

Unionist euroscepticism and nationalist euro-enthusiasm are now well-established trends in our political class. However, there were no clear orange or green positions on European integration in the Seventies and many of the tensions then evident within both traditions remain today.

The UK and the Republic of Ireland joined the EEC in January 1973. Faced with a startling relative economic decline compared to EEC member states, a British cross-party consensus on membership had formed in the 1960s - only for General de Gaulle to veto British applications.

It was third time lucky when the British and Irish were finally jointly accepted. Irish entry was ratified by referendum in 1972 - an overwhelming 83% of the Republic's electorate voted Yes to membership.

In the UK, however, Harold Wilson's Labour was re-elected in 1974 with the party now hopelessly split on Europe. Wilson, setting an example for David Cameron, promised to renegotiate a better deal for the UK and then settle the matter by referendum.

In a break from convention, four senior Left-wing Cabinet ministers - Barbara Castle, Michael Foot, Tony Benn, and Peter Shore - campaigned against the Prime Minister's deal.

Alongside Benn, the most prominent anti-EEC campaigner was Right-winger Enoch Powell. Elected the previous year as Ulster Unionist MP for South Down, Powell had urged voters to elect a Labour Government in order to secure the referendum.

In 1975 the overwhelming majority of Conservative MPs supported Yes. All of the major British newspapers, business groups and farmers' unions were also firmly pro-EEC.

The trades unions across Britain and Ireland were divided on the issue. Overall, the Yes campaign had significantly more money and resources than its rival.

In contrast with 2016, the anti-EEC campaign was bolstered by support from the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties. Outside of the political mainstream, the Communist Party and the fascist National Front opposed EEC membership.

The politics of the 1975 vote were just as complex in Northern Ireland. More than five years into the Troubles and with voters weary from seven elections in two years, the EEC was understandably a secondary concern for local voters.

However, the campaign offered a fresh perspective for vital topics to be discussed - not least the crisis in Ulster's traditional industries.

Successive unionist Prime Ministers, from Brookeborough to Faulkner, had advocated the Common Market. However, the turmoil of the Troubles created a new leadership of unionism which now viewed the EEC as a challenge to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.

Influenced by Powell, the UUP confirmed its opposition to the EEC, but the party made little substantive contribution to the campaign. This, in part, reflected grassroots divisions - many key components of unionist opinion maintaining support for the EEC.

It is tempting to draw parallels between the UUP in 1975 and today's DUP. Divisive issues such as Europe are problematic for the leading "broad-church" unionist party.

It is unsurprising the DUP, while maintaining its opposition to the EU, has become less strident and now acknowledges that "members and voters will hold a range of differing personal views as to what is in the best interests of the United Kingdom".

Such niceties were absent from the DUP's stance in 1975. Ian Paisley had been cautious about the EEC in the early Seventies, but by the referendum he was certain. Alongside widely shared concerns about the EEC's impact on British sovereignty, the border and the viability of small farms, Paisley saw the EEC as "a Roman Catholic super-state". To Paisley "staying in the Common Market should be totally repugnant to freedom-loving Protestants".

In stark contrast, Bill Craig and other leading figures in Ulster Vanguard were enthusiastically pro-EEC - seeing Northern Ireland's future as belonging in "a Europe of the regions". The political voices of the loyalist paramilitaries were largely hostile to the EEC.

The picture on the nationalist side of the fence was equally confusing. Under the influence of John Hume, SDLP policy had become pro-European.

Hume, fuelling unionist unease, suggested the EEC would dilute partition and provide an economic boost to border areas. However, figures like Paddy Devlin and Gerry Fitt remained lukewarm at best about membership.

All wings of armed republicanism opposed the EEC. Both Provisional and Official wings of Sinn Fein campaigned against Irish entry in 1972 and continued this stance in 1975.

The core republican argument was that the EEC transgressed Irish sovereignty. The Officials further asserted a Left-wing opposition to the EEC as "a rich man's club"; an argument echoed by the Provisionals, who added concerns that the "Common Market Empire" would destroy Irish culture and language, increase emigration and threaten Irish ownership of the land.

In the middle-ground of local politics, Alliance was solidly pro-EEC. Individuals from the Northern Ireland Labour Party also played leading roles in the Yes campaign.

The common concerns of many unionists and republicans in 1975 are striking. At the height of the Troubles, with the constitutional future of the North apparently up for grabs, many feared that European integration threatened both their preferred independent nation-states - a united Ireland or a maintained UK.

Local Yes and No campaigns had difficulties selling a coherent message to such a divided society. The local Yes campaign had more success, clearly linking the EEC's goal of advancing peace in Europe with hopes for "peace and prosperity" locally. Yes also astutely highlighted support from business, the Ulster Farmers Union and sport stars such as Willie John McBride and Mary Peters.

Pundits expected Northern Ireland to vote No. In a reversal of today's political landscape, Scotland was also more eurosceptic than England and it was suspected that the "Celtic fringe" of the UK might reject the EEC.

When the overall UK result was announced, the Yes campaign had secured an impressive 67% - a two-thirds majority in favour of the EEC.

Northern Ireland surprised itself by narrowly voting Yes, by 52% to 48%. Shetland and the Western Isles were the only districts of the UK to Vote No.

Turnout in Northern Ireland of only 48% suggested the public hadn't been especially enthused by the referendum. Nonetheless, the narrow Yes vote against expectations suggests that a slim majority of voters placed some hope in the EEC - at a time when optimism was in short supply.

The European debate has often been another battleground for domestic political divisions, with unionists and nationalists imposing their fears and aspirations onto the European project.

However, the debate has also offered local society the opportunity to ask bigger questions about Northern Ireland's place in a quickly changing world.

Many voters in 2016 - as in 1975 - may look beyond local politicians and traditional loyalties for guidance on referendum day.

Dr James Greer is visiting research fellow at the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy, Queen's University, Belfast

Belfast Telegraph

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