Belfast Telegraph

EU referendum: A debate that has failed to rise to the occasion

The EU referendum contest swings wildly from the dire warnings of the Remain camp to the chippy jingoism of Leave supporters. What it is crying out for is some hard facts, writes Alex Kane

During the 1975 referendum on the United Kingdom's continuing membership of the-then European Community, the UUP, DUP and most of the smaller fringe groups within unionism and loyalism (with the exception of Vanguard, whose deputy leader was David Trimble) lined up in the Leave camp.

Their major concern was the diminution of British sovereignty, particularly the powers of the House of Commons: understandable at the time, I suppose, because Northern Ireland was a very violent and politically/constitutionally unstable place in the mid-1970s.

And there was also a concern within mainstream unionism that continuing membership of the EC could push Dublin and London closer together to the disadvantage of unionism.

Ironically, Sinn Fein was also in the Leave camp, but only because it thought that an improving London/Dublin relationship would work to its disadvantage.

This time around the DUP, TUV, Ukip and most of the fringe elements of unionism and loyalism (along with David Trimble) are still in the Leave camp, while the UUP and Sinn Fein have shifted to the Remain camp.

Opinion polls suggest that it's likely/probable that the UK will vote to stay, yet neither side is taking anything for granted at this stage. But what would happen to Northern Ireland if the United Kingdom did leave the European Union?

The first thing to say is that the debate, so far, has consisted of lobbing self-justifying opinions and conjectures at each other rather than hard, provable, uncontested facts. That's not surprising, because neither side actually knows what would happen: all they can do is guess and speculate.

Remain warns of economic chaos while Leave argues that we'll be using our own money as we choose to use it. Sammy Wilson seems to think that Northern Ireland farmers and businesses - many of whom say that they do quite well from the EU - would be fine if we leave because the same money would still come to them, albeit from the UK Exchequer.

But would it? If the UK is no longer in the EU then Northern Ireland is just one UK region competing with quite a few other internal regions.

And, because our MPs don't actually have all that much clout within the Conservative or Labour parties, they may find it much harder than Wilson thinks to persuade the Chancellor to make up any shortfalls which would follow a Brexit.

At this stage no one in the DUP can give any financial guarantee to any farmer, businessman, developer or industrialist in Northern Ireland - let alone offer them any safeguards if things don't work out as forecast by Leave.

And the Assembly's next Finance Minister - likely to be from the DUP - may find themselves with an enormous headache and economic hole to fill in the event of Brexit.

Some commentators and politicians have argued that Brexit would endanger the peace process. Dr Francis Costello, a Belfast-based consultant assisting American and Irish companies and organisations in building pan-Atlantic business ties, says: "There are few more effective tools that could be put in the hands of dissident republicans and irredentist loyalists and undermine the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement than to reinstate the border between North and South."

Again, there is no certainty about any of this. The British and Irish governments have come a long, long way since 1975 and the relationship between them is better now than it has been for centuries.

When it comes to the Good Friday Agreement they trust each other, and I think they both recognise that a hardened "physical" border could do huge damage.

Brussels and Washington also recognise that fact, so I'm pretty sure that "arrangements" would - and very quickly - be put in place to ensure that there wouldn't be a hardened border.

The North-South institutions remain in place irrespective of EU membership, as do the London/Dublin, Belfast/Dublin connections. It is not in the EU's interests to have instability between the UK and the Republic, or between Dublin and Northern Ireland, so it will give the nod of approval to any "arrangements" concluded between the British and Irish governments.

There's also the Scottish dimension to consider. I've heard some champions of Remain, along with some UUP members, suggest that Brexit would lead to a second referendum in Scotland, which would result in a majority vote to leave the UK and the subsequent unravelling of the Union. But SNP policy is for Scottish independence anyway, so at some point it will be pushing for that second referendum.

My view is that it will find independence a much harder sell if Scotland, along with the rest of the UK, is outside the EU at the time of that referendum. Because, under those circumstances, Scotland not only has to disengage from the UK - at a time when oil/gas prices are low and with no guarantee of higher stability - it also has to join the EU in its own right, knowing that its closest neighbour and key trading partner, England, is outside the EU. In other words, Brexit makes life very much more complicated for the SNP agenda.

Something else worth considering is: what would happen to the Sinn Fein/DUP relationship in the event of Brexit? As I said earlier, I don't think there would be a hardened "physical" border as a consequence of leaving, yet there could still be problems for Sinn Fein.

Some of its core support, as well as the dissident elements of republicanism, would probably interpret a Leave vote as a huge setback for the "unity project". It would view it as a victory for "unionist nationalism" over the wishes of Scottish and Irish nationalism and that would certainly shift the dynamics in terms of implementing the Good Friday Agreement.

What has concerned me most during the opening weeks of the Brexit debate in Northern Ireland has been the difficulty in focusing on key issues and thinking through the consequences. Neither side has fully acknowledged the fact that they don't know what would happen if the UK leaves.

The other thing that has struck me is why, after 43 years of membership, the Remain camp seems so bereft of a genuinely convincing reason for staying: most of its campaign seems to consist of town-crier-of-Pompeii warnings.

Similarly, the Leave camp seems to think that its chipper, we-can-do-it-for-ourselves jingoism is a credible substitute for clear figures and thought-through, potentially difficult realities.

Brexit would result in a very particular set of consequences for Northern Ireland, for politics here and for the British/Irish relationship. That's the debate we need to have. Those are the consequences we need to understand.

Our vote, which will, I think, be for Remain, will not determine the overall outcome, but we need to be ready if our fellow citizens - the vast majority of whom are English - opt for Leave.

This is the biggest political/constitutional decision that most voters will make in their lifetime: so it would be beneficial if the debate - from both sides - rose to the occasion.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph