Before the end of 2017, and possibly much sooner, British voters will be asked if they wish to stay in or to leave the European Union (EU).
The current debate on the so-called Brexit is multi-faceted and embraces a host of issues. Concerns about immigration, borders, and welfare are featuring heavily in the debate.
The merits of being either inside or outside the EU free trade area are being argued. The effects of excessive EU bureaucracy and red-tape, and a lack of transparency and accountability are also being highlighted by those campaigning to leave.
But there are other, less tangible, issues which infuse the debate. One in particular is the impact of EU membership on British sovereignty, an aspect of the UK’s relationship with the EU which the country has long struggled with.
The North’s relationship with the EU has been less antagonistic, and the region has benefitted from EU financial assistance to a greater extent than many other parts of the UK.
The referendum conversation in the North includes some talk of these issues and more, but the campaign there is less developed than in other parts of Britian. The key reason for this is because political parties in the North have not engaged vigorously or enthusiastically with the debate.
Political parties in the North can be grouped into three separate categories according to their position on the EU referendum.
The first grouping is those parties that support continued UK membership of the EU. This camp includes the two nationalist parties, the SDLP and Sinn Féin. The SDLP is the most pro-EU party in the North. Although Sinn Féin adopts a ‘critical engagement’ stance, the party has committed to campaign for the UK to remain within the EU. The Alliance Party is also supportive of the ‘remain’ campaign.
The anti-EU campaigners include two small unionist parties — the Northern Ireland branch of Nigel Farage’s UKIP and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) party led by Jim Allister. Both parties are stridently anti-EU and are supportive of leaving the EU.
The third category of parties is those which have yet to clearly articulate a position either for or against continued UK membership of the EU. This group includes the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). The DUP has traditionally been eurosceptic, while UUP support for the EU tends to be ambiguous, and sometimes tenuous. Neither party has outlined how it intends to campaign and there are signs of some disagreement within the ranks of each party.
So why are the mainstream unionist parties not being more strident in identifying and articulating their views and positions? They may argue that they are awaiting the outcome of prime minister David Cameron’s renegotiation process.
However, their reasons are more complex than this.
The EU referendum debate includes consideration of sensitive political and economic questions for the North. On the economic front, the debate involves discussions about how Brexit might impact on trade relations between the North and the Republic of Ireland, and on how a UK departure from the EU might undermine the development of an all-island economy.
More politically charged issues around sovereignty, British identity and even the unity of the UK are also at issue. A departure from the EU may disrupt relations between north and south.
A Brexit may reignite calls for Scotland to depart the UK and remain within the EU, which could put the issue of Irish unity on the agenda. Sinister forces intent on either protecting the status quo or on pushing for a new all-Ireland settlement may be enlivened. The fragile peace process may be seriously challenged.
For nationalists, these issues are easier to confront and to debate because, to some extent, they connect with an all-Ireland agenda and align with political interests south of the border. For unionists, the debate is more challenging, and uncovers far more difficult and searching questions.
In ideological terms, supporting the ‘leave’ campaign may be more palatable for unionists, but it is also risky. Were the ‘leave’ campaign to be successful, this plays into the hands of the Scottish independence movement and may also invigorate debates around a united Ireland. The potential for constitutional instability then materialises, effectively threatening the very essence of unionism — their support for the UK.
The alternative for unionists is to support the ‘remain’ campaign, a position which may be politically and ideologically less agreeable. It would align unionism more closely with Irish nationalism and with Irish government policy.
It would also put unionism at odds with the UK secretary of state, Theresa Villiers, who is likely to support Brexit, now that Mr Cameron has freed his to campaign as they wish. In addition, supporting a ‘remain’ campaign would distance unionism from many of its traditional allies in the Conservative Party who are supporting a UK exit from the EU.
Unionist reticence may be understandable, but it is also problematic. It effectively means that unionist voters lack guidance from their mainstream political representatives.
This distorts the quality of public debate in the North and limits the ability of voters to make informed choices.
There is an onus on political parties to analyse and to isolate the precise effects of a ‘remain’ or ‘leave’ vote for a specifically Northern Irish constituency of voters. For a whole host of reasons related to geography, economics and politics, the challenges and issues facing the North are different than for other parts of the UK. Voters deserve to know what is at stake.
Unionists may harbour genuine fears and concerns about various elements of the referendum debate, but they do their voters a disservice by failing to contribute. A recent Belfast Telegraph online poll revealed that 91% of nationalists would vote to remain in the EU whereas just 21% of unionists are supportive of the UK staying in.
Perhaps more stark is the fact that 24% of unionist voters are undecided, in contrast to just 1% of nationalists.
In fairness to those voters, it is better for their political representatives to play a role in shaping a debate, rather than allow it to be dominated by others with whom they feel little affinity.
Dr Mary C. Murphy is a lecturer in politics in the Department of Government, University College Cork. She holds a Jean Monnet Chair in European Integration and is the author of Northern Ireland and the European Union: The Changing Dynamics of Governance.