EU Referendum: Is this a chance to break Nationalist malaise?

It was one of the main developments that people took away from the General Election and that was the decline in the Nationalist vote. It is true that no matter how much Sinn Fein and the SDLP attempt to kid themselves to the contrary, Unionism has it seems stemmed the tide of apathy and now it is Nationalist politicians who are now feeling the pinch of a shrinking voter base.

Is there an issue that Nationalists could possibly attach themselves to, in order to become re-engaged in the political process?

Well, funny enough David Cameron might just have handed one in the in/out referendum on the European Union.

Now is every Nationalist in favour of staying in the European Union? Of course, not.

But what can unite Nationalists is the following;

  1. The chance of a pan-Nationalist coalition across the UK as the SNP and Plaid Cymru demand seperate referenda for each region of the United Kingdom.
  2. The notion that a government which recieved a paltry 9,055 votes in Northern Ireland at the recent election can legislate for such an important constitutional change with next to no mandate from our community.
  3. Linked to this is the chance to highlight the political weakness of our position within the United Kingdom as England’s more than 38 million voters have much greater strength than our electorate of just 1.2 million.
  4. The chance to stress the all island aspects of our economy as businesses North and South engage in the referendum process.

All of these issues should engage the wider Nationalist community in a political process that has for many become alien to them. Big debates about our constitutional and economic direction must speak to that core franchise and that cross section of our community in order to get them engaged in the political process.

An in/out referendum will be a real test for parties to be able to come together and argue with one coherent voice in a referendum campaign. Likewise, it should be an opportunity for those who are opposed to the European Union within the Nationalist base to become engaged with debates about Northern Ireland’s strength within the UK.

Nationalism has suffered two poor election results and with little competition, direction or debate at the moment I don’t see the decline in turout ending anytime soon. An issue as big as our place in Europe might be an issue that re-engages those who have stopped voting.

David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs

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