The UK’s EU membership: An ethno-national debate for Northern Ireland’s political parties?By Henry Jarrett on 5 May 2015
Although the Conservative Party’s pledge of a referendum on the UK’s EU membership has been one of the main issues of the general election campaign, there has been little focus on this within the context of Northern Ireland. This is surprising given that the region would likely be one of the most heavily affected by a ‘Brexit’. Indeed, Northern Ireland has the UK’s only land border and receives significant EU funding through PEACE programmes, whilst the cross-border institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement are designed to operate within the context of an EU in which state sovereignty and borders matter less. The impact of a ‘Brexit’ would, therefore, be hugely significant in the region. Using the 2015 general election manifestos of the five main Northern Ireland parties, I analyse their positions on a potential referendum and the possibility of the UK leaving the EU.
Given the DUP’s tradition of Euroscepticism, it is unsurprising that its manifesto is the most forthright in its support for a referendum. It calls for an early poll and also for the renegotiation of aspects of the UK’s relationship with the EU. Other than a reference to the need for international military cooperation to be conducted through NATO rather than the EU, no justification for this position is provided. Neither is any consideration given to the impact of a ‘Brexit’ on Northern Ireland.
Like the DUP, the UUP supports a referendum on EU membership and the renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with Europe. The party justifies its position by claiming that the EU of today is ‘a political institution that now interferes too much in our day to day lives’ instead of the common market its founders intended. Where the two parties differ, however, is in the UUP’s consideration of the possible effects of a ‘Brexit’ on the UK. It argues that thought must be given to the cost of withdrawal, in terms of both economics and security. The UUP, therefore, is more hesitant in its Euroscepticism than the DUP. Its manifesto, nevertheless, makes no specific reference to any potential impact on Northern Ireland.
In contrast to the two main unionist parties, the SDLP opposes a referendum and a UK withdrawal from the EU, and frames this firmly within the context of Northern Ireland. Perhaps unsurprisingly given its traditionally pro-European position, the issue is a major theme throughout its manifesto. It argues that Northern Ireland ‘is better off within a united Europe’ and uses the example of the negative impact of a ‘Brexit’ on farmers to support its policy by claiming that the possibility of a referendum has caused fear within this community.
Like the SDLP, Sinn Fein opposes any EU membership referendum. It accuses the Conservatives of failing to consider the ramifications of a UK withdrawal on Northern Ireland and argues that if a referendum is to happen, there must be a separate, binding poll in the region. Although it is not a main theme of Sinn Fein’s manifesto, with the issue of a united Ireland taking precedence, the party is nevertheless strongly against a referendum. Where it differs to the SDLP, however, is in being a lot less clear on its justification of its position.
Alliance’s manifesto emphasises the party’s opposition to a referendum and its support for the UK’s continued membership of the EU. Its rationale is based on the benefits the EU brings to Northern Ireland, through boosting its economy and by raising the profile of the region internationally. Alliance also directly engages with Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Irish Republic in the context of EU membership, and refers to its land border and close economic ties to that state. There are significant parallels between how Alliance and the SDLP present their pro-Europeanism.
To summarise, there is an indisputable cleavage in party positions in Northern Ireland on a possible referendum. Whilst stopping short of endorsing a ‘Brexit’ at this time, both the DUP and the UUP wholeheartedly support a poll. The SDLP and Alliance, on the other hand, are vehement in their rejection of a referendum and support for the UK’s, and therefore Northern Ireland’s, continued membership of the EU. Whilst falling somewhere between the two camps, Sinn Fein is nevertheless closer to the SDLP/Alliance stance with its opposition to a referendum.
It is particularly interesting that this cleavage, with the obvious exception of Alliance, follows ethno-national lines. For the DUP and the UUP, it is possible that leaving the EU is a way in which Northern Ireland could distance itself politically from the Irish Republic. In contrast, for the SDLP and Sinn Fein, remaining in the EU would enable the region to strengthen ties with that state and could be used as a vehicle to push for Irish unity, as either a short or long term aspiration. This begs the question of which party a pro-EU unionist or a Eurosceptic nationalist should vote for, short of crossing the ethno-national divide or supporting Alliance.
It is nevertheless important not to overemphasise the role of ethno-national divisions in influencing party positions on the EU. That the DUP and the UUP are to the right of centre and are Eurosceptic, or at the very least cautious over the UK’s relationship with Europe, is broadly in line with centre-right and right-wing parties in Britain. Likewise, opposition to a referendum from the left-of-centre SDLP and Sinn Fein is largely in tune with centrist and centre-left parties such as the Liberal Democrats and Labour. It is, therefore, not possible to argue that the positions of Northern Ireland’s parties on the possibility of an EU membership referendum are based simply on ethno-nationalism.
Henry Jarrett is a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter. His research focuses on nationalism, ethnicity and election campaigns in Northern Ireland and other divided societies. He received his BSc (Hons) in International Relations from the University of Plymouth (2011) and his MSc in Global Politics from the University of Southampton (2012).