Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

We would be real victims of Cameron's futile EU call

Pointless referenda on Europe and Irish unity would only allow politicians here to shirk bread-and-butter issues, says Robin Wilson

When the flag protests eventually, well, flag, two recent political initiatives are going to ensure Northern Ireland's normalisation remains an ever-receding horizon.

The first stems from the speech in London last week by David Cameron. While ostensibly on Europe, it was entirely for two English audiences: his restive backbenchers and potential voters for Ukip in the 2015 Westminster election.

In the rest of Europe, the speech fell like a stone. It was dismissed by the former German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, as "ideological fantasy" and "magical thinking".

As Fischer pointed out, there is no prospect whatever of the other 26 member states agreeing to renegotiate the individual relationship of the UK to the EU, as Mr Cameron blithely assumes, before he would declare a post-election referendum on these new terms of engagement.

Indeed, the speech will only open up the growing divisions between the Tories and their pro-European Liberal Democrat coalition partners as that election approaches.

And, as austerity grows increasingly unpopular, a Labour/Liberal Democrat coalition is a good bet to oust the Conservatives in 2015, in any case. Like the Home Counties patrician that he is, a centrepiece of Cameron's speech was 'Britain' as an 'island nation'.

He evidently did not give a moment's thought to how - as the Labour first minister in Wales, Carwyn Jones, pointed out - this English-nationalist rhetoric would only encourage the Scottish-nationalist cause, with the prospect of the referendum on independence there in autumn 2014.

While only around a quarter of Scots support independence, according to new survey evidence, a closely-fought campaign would doubtless have knock-on effects in Northern Ireland, where the First and deputy First Ministers have already (gratuitously) intervened to support one side, or the other.

Nor, clearly, did Cameron cast even a cursory glance towards Northern Ireland. Yet a restored customs barrier at Newry might be one fearsome consequence of a UK withdrawal from the EU - and diminished foreign investment on this side of the border, no longer a gateway to the European single market, the other.

The possibility of an 'in-out' referendum after the Westminster election will be sure to colour how the European Parliament elections are contested next year - with the Eurosceptic DUP saying 'out' and the formerly-Eurosceptic Sinn Fein saying 'in'.

With actual European issues thus crowded out, neither will be obliged to say anything of note about how Northern Ireland as a disadvantaged region can be buffeted from the eurozone crisis.

Sinn Fein has, meanwhile, proposed another 'in-out' referendum - a border poll during the term of the next assembly. And the DUP has agreed.

This, too, is futile. The legislation under which a border poll would be held, arising from the Belfast Agreement, places the decision in the hands of the Northern Ireland secretary and indicates that s/he should only mount such a referendum were a majority for Irish reunification likely.

Theresa Villiers has already declared she has no such intention. And the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, made plain to the Sinn Fein leader, Gerry Adams, in the Dail that he did not believe the time was right.

No border poll has been run by the UK Government, though it was envisaged this would take place every 10 years, since the 1973 referendum, because of its self-evidently polarising effect.

With devolution a stable reality, Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey data show support for direct rule from Westminster or Irish reunification has fallen to the lowest levels since the series began.

Which won't stop Sinn Fein and the DUP exploiting the border question to squeeze further their intracommunal opponents in the next Assembly election.

An election on 'bread-and-butter' issues? Don't bet on that.

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