Recently I noted on these pages that the impending EU in/out referendum was still shrouded in ‘unknowns’, both on what Brussels will offer David Cameron and what the political landscape will look like, both in Stormont, Westminster and beyond.
Today some things may have gotten more interesting as David Cameron today Conservative Government ministers are to be allowed to campaign for either side in the referendum, likely to happen later this year.
Given Theresa Villiers’ history of euroscepticism, both during her time as an MEP in Brussels and MP she is likely to campaign for ‘out’, with some sources saying she would have otherwise resigned if she weren’t allowed to do so.
There is nothing new in having an anti-EU Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, her predecessor Owen Paterson being the best example, but it will be interesting to see how this will play-out in the referendum itself and how it will affect the political process.
With regards to the Executive and the Assembly Nationalist parties and Alliance will certainly back the ‘In’ side in the referendum. However which way the two main unionist parties will swing is still unclear, neither the soon-to-be First Minister or Mike Nesbitt have made a definite call on the vote yet.
What might make life more complicated during the referendum could be wide gap on the issue between Secretary of State Villiers and her counterpart in Dublin. Charlie Flanagan and Enda Kenny’s government have been outspoken in their belief that the UK should remain in the EU and haven’t been shy about using Northern Ireland as a good reason why. The Taoiseach even warned it could undermine the peace process, at the CBI conference in November he offered that:
“Now is not the time to weaken the cohesive, stabilising influence and outward focus that shared EU Membership brings to Northern Ireland.”
The Minister of Foreign Affairs called it
“jumping over the cliff into uncertainty” and saying it could lead to the return of border checkpoints.
Putting London and Dublin at such polar opposites on this issue could provide for difficult days ahead during the referendum campaign, whenever that might take place.
Those at the Northern Ireland Office who are hoping for more of a Pro-EU message may have to look to the Under Minister of State, Ben Wallace MP, a member of the Tory party’s European Mainstream Group.