Europe: still unknown?

opinion-poll-graph

(Source of graphic)

As others have noted, this might be the week that the campaign for the EU referendum finally got going. This week the Prime Minister tried to signal he was getting stuck-in to the issue of Europe, indeed on Monday he resolved to “throw himself headlong” into staying-in. On Tuesday he went even further saying he was willing to campaign “heart and soul” to keep Britain in the EU. Enda Kenny for his part was unequivocal in his support for keeping his neighbour in the club of 28, calling a British withdrawal from the EU “a major strategic risk for Ireland”.

The vote on Europe has never quite seemed top priority for any party, it was largely absent from the centre stage at most party conferences this autumn (except for UKIP of course). But few could blame parties for letting this issue slide, however crucial the issue at stake, at least for now. The main issue all parties face is simple: They don’t know when the vote will be. Officially it has to be before the end of 2017, but while that in theory leaves a whole 24 months to go most believe the Prime Minister (plus all of his cabinet who favour staying-in) wants it sometime in 2016 , with next September the most talked-about option. However the government’s options for a 2016 poll are running short, if the House or Lords’ amendments are to EU bill are taken seriously it could easily run into 2017.

All parties in the UK will have to put candidates up for a vote before then as elections for the Scottish parliament and the Assemblies in Wales, Northern Ireland and London will take place on 5 May 2016 along with over 2,000 council seats and the vote for the new mayor of London. By that time Sinn Féin will have also gone through a Dáil election, for which it has high hopes. With the option of having the EU vote on 5 May as well has already been ruled-out, a vote in September would leave parties precious-little time to gather themselves after the tumult of the previous battle, or raise the resources to fight a long or energised campaign. Few are talking about devoting time and resources with so many unknowns.

While issues at Stormont continue to dominate it is slowly getting harder to ignore the European issue altogether. Recent independent reports have warned of serious economic and social implications for Northern Ireland if it were to leave the EU. In his speech to the CBI this week Enda Kenny also gave his neighbourly warning that a Brexit could even undermine the peace process.

For most parties represented in Northern Ireland there is unlikely to be much deliberation needed on how to vote in the referendum. With Alliance, the SDLP and the Greens determinedly pro-European they will surely call loudly for an ‘IN’ vote. Meanwhile there can be little prospect of Sinn Fein calling for its voters to follow Nigel Farage and the high tories behind the charge for Brexit, but how much they will campaign in the referendum remains to be seen.

The unionist parties however aren’t as straightforward. While the UUP called for an ‘Out’ vote in 1975, it may be different this time. Mike Nesbitt mike think it safe to follow David Cameron’s reform agenda, but would that mean allowing some party members to take a different line? The party’s MEP Jim Nicholson is known in Brussels and elsewhere as a pragmatist, last month he warned there were:
“Lots of unknowns if UK votes to leave EU”

UKIP and the TUV will certainly be on the ‘Out’ side but the Assembly elections are what they will focus-on just like anyone else.

Northern Ireland’s largest party are different. When I asked a DUP insider if party conference (later this month) was likely to include any substantive debates on the EU vote I was met with predictable laughter on their part, but sooner or later it is something on which the party will have to make a call.

If Northern Ireland’s First Minister calls for the UK to leave the EU he would set himself at odds with his fellow devolved leaders in Cardiff, Edinburgh and almost certainly the Prime Minister too. In the past Peter Robinson has publicly said that Northern Ireland is better-off in the EU, but from him all the way down there is an identifiable euroscepticism within the DUP. Some elected representatives have told me in conversation that they honestly would still rather vote ‘out’ than ‘in’ and other party representatives openly called for Brexit. The DUP is not a party accustomed to splits or allowing free votes among its members, so it may need to ponder its position carefully ahead of the vote.

Prominent Northern Irish voices have already weighed-into the debate, Kate Hoey thrust a glossy ‘out’ leaflet into my hand at party conference last month, a position shared by Lord David Trimble. Meanwhile Col. Tim Collins is has gone to battle for the ‘IN’ side.

An opinion poll in August (see graphic) suggested 58% in Northern Ireland wanted to stay in the EU, with 16% wanting to leave. Whilst few expect the number of votes cast in Northern Ireland to have much of a bearing on the overall result, the implications of withdrawal could be disproportionally acute for Northern Ireland, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day.