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How Northern Ireland could end up coming to Cameron's rescue in the EU referendum

Published 01/06/2016

SDLP MLA Alban Maginness
SDLP MLA Alban Maginness

We only represent 3% of the UK electorate, but this place may prove crucial in deciding the outcome of the big vote on June 23, says Alban Maginness.

The recent news that the net immigration figures for the UK have reached a record of 333,000 come at a bad time for David Cameron as he struggles to convince the electorate that the UK should stay in the European Union.

Despite the fact that there is as much immigration from outside the EU as there is from within, it does not matter a hoot to many who are fearful - indeed - alarmed by immigration into Britain. This is a boost to the Leave side, who trade on rampant xenophobia and the fear of Britain being swamped by foreigners.

Opinion polls indicate that the vote in England alone will be very close. More worrying for Cameron is that, even in Wales, there was an unhealthy surge in support for Ukip in the Welsh Assembly election, giving that party seven new seats. At 13%, the Ukip votes indicate that Wales could be extremely tight for the Remain side.

On the other hand London, having just elected Europhile Labour mayor Sadiq Khan, should be predictably pro-Europe. London is a mega-city with a different political climate to the rest of England. It is highly unlikely that London would vote Leave given that it has benefited most from EU membership. To leave the European Union would inflict severe damage on the City of London - the biggest financial centre in Europe.

The Scots, however, are about 65% in favour of remaining. This is confirmed by the opinion polls and the recent parliamentary vote, where an overwhelming majority of MSPs supported a motion to remain within the EU. Nonetheless, there is no certainty that there will be an electoral majority for the Remain side in Britain, such is the delicate balance of political opinion.

Much will, of course, depend on voter turnout, and I would anticipate that the Leave side will be able to generate and mobilise a more enthusiastic anti-European vote.

Given the apparent closeness of the vote in Britain, it may well be that Northern Ireland - although only 3% of the UK electorate - could be the crucial determinant in leaving or staying within the EU. All of this means that we should be looking at our own internal debate on the referendum.

I think it would be fair to say that the debate here has made little traction with the local electorate. Yet there have been keen efforts made by local people, not least the business community, including the CBI, whose members have concluded that the best outcome for the UK is to remain in a reformed Europe. Our local trade unions have, likewise, overwhelmingly supported the Remain side.

The Northern Ireland committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has called on its members to use their vote to remain for "the stability of the economy of Northern Ireland, for the security of their jobs and for their rights as workers".

Disappointingly, the Ulster Farmers Union, while making sympathetic pro-European noises, has refused to advise its members what way to vote.

For a sector so crucially linked to the EU, it is very odd that this farming organisation has adopted such a non-position.

But, perhaps more refreshingly, our local political parties have engaged in a civilised public debate about the merits of the European Union.

Amazingly, under Northern Ireland Stronger In Europe, there has been a coming together of political opinion across the traditional sectarian divide, with the UUP in particular supporting Remain.

In fairness to Mike Nesbitt (below), this is a brave step out of the unionist comfort zone and is to be warmly welcomed.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood enthusiastically supports staying in the EU and has rightly said that support for Europe is in the SDLP's political DNA. The party, with the probable exception of Alliance, has been the only consistently pro-European party in Northern Ireland. John Hume was a pan-European statesman who rightly saw the European project as a template for our own peace process. Sinn Fein has belatedly become a supporter of the EU despite the fact that it consistently opposed every major initiative to enlarge or reform the EU.

Nonetheless, the support of all these parties, be it weak or strong, and in addition the business sector and the trade union movement, will be very helpful in achieving a pro-EU majority.

Curiously, the DUP, which is officially opposed to European membership, has been low-key in its opposition within the Stormont Assembly.

The active opposition to EU membership within the DUP is among its MPs, who are safely embedded in the Westminster bubble, where they can indulge their Eurosceptic fantasies without affecting the more pragmatic views of their colleagues in the Assembly.

While Northern Ireland is on the European periphery both geographically and politically, a majority here in favour of or against EU membership could be crucial to the UK's momentous decision on Europe - and the future of David Cameron's premiership.

Belfast Telegraph

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