Continued membership of the EU is the only way that Unionism can survive

Dr. David Shiels is College Research Associate in History at Wolfson College, Cambridge and author of a forthcoming biography of Enoch Powell. He argues that if Unionists insist on peeling away the post war constitutional frame by leaving the EU, you risk the unraveling of the British Union too.

The Democratic Unionist Party has, at last, come out in favour of Brexit.  The party which proudly wears the badge of Euroscepticism in Northern Ireland has until now refused to take a formal position in the referendum debate, even though many of its MPs and MLAs declared themselves as Outers some time ago. 

At the weekend, the First Minister, Arlene Foster, confirmed that her party would ‘on balance’ recommend a Leave Vote. 

In many respects, this is the only credible position that the party could have taken.  The DUP has long campaigned for a referendum on Europe: as Nigel Dodds pointed out in the House of Commons debate on the Referendum Bill last year, the DUP is ‘the only party that has consistently called for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, dating all the way back to troubles over Maastricht’. 

Going back even further, Ian Paisley was one of the most prominent supporters of the ‘Out’ side in the 1975 referendum debate – alongside Enoch Powell in the Ulster Unionist Party – a fact that did not necessarily have a beneficial effect on the Out campaign in the rest of the UK.

The First Minister’s announcement followed on from the Secretary of State’s revelation that she would be one of the Cabinet Ministers who would be campaigning for Brexit.  Her intervention may well have little impact on the debate in Northern Ireland, but it is significant that the Secretary of State and the First Minister, both women, will be taking campaigning on the same side. 

Theresa Villiers claims that hers is a personal decision based on long-held beliefs about the European Union, and there is no doubt that this is the case.  As a former Member of the European Parliament, she has spent time in Brussels and Strasbourg and her views on the EU were probably shaped in light of this experience, rather than her experience as a Minister over the last 6 years. 

Some have accused Ms Villiers of overlooking the interests of Northern Ireland in this debate – the argument being that Brexit would be destabilising for the province.  This is not necessarily the case, but it would be interesting to know how the Secretary of State sees the future of Northern Ireland outside the EU.

From a Unionist perspective, there are certainly grounds for being a Eurosceptic or even an Outer.  There is an argument to be made that the European Union is a rival to the United Kingdom: this is something apparent in the SNP’s support for the European Union as an alternative to the UK during the Scottish referendum campaign. 

It is hardly reassuring to Unionists when they see a combination of Nicola Sturgeon, Gerry Adams and Enda Kenny – politicians who, in theory at least, want to see the break-up of the United Kingdom – campaigning in favour of the EU (although Mr Kenny’s rhetoric about the essential common interest between Britain and Ireland suggests he would make a plausible Unionist himself).

On the other hand, there would be an opportunity for Unionists to welcome Sinn Fein and the SDLP into the pro-Union fold, and to question them on the logic of their nationalism.  It is a paradox that the SNP, which seeks independence from London, supports membership of the EU while Unionist voices from Northern Ireland endorse ‘independence’ from Brussels.

Party political issues aside, Brexit would open up lots of difficult questions for the UK and Ireland.  The question of Britain’s renegotiation with Europe has been seen as one of the top foreign policy priorities of the Irish Government for some time.  The relationship between the UK and Republic of Ireland is intimate and complicated. 

The two countries have a Common Travel Area there are reciprocal voting rights for British and Irish citizens living in each country, and everyone born in Northern Ireland is entitled to Irish (and, therefore, European) citizenship. 

In the middle of this debate Northern Ireland occupies an uncomfortable position, and in a post-Brexit world Nationalists and Unionists would face an even greater conflict of loyalties.  There are therefore legitimate questions about the future of the province, even if the DUP is also right that there is an element of scaremongering on the part of the Irish Government and the pro-EU parties in Northern Ireland. 

The Unionist parties should also pause and think about how they present their arguments when they join the ‘Out’ campaign.  They must remember that their main audience during the referendum campaign will be in Northern Ireland itself, where Nationalists will be alienated by jingoistic UKIP-style rhetoric about independence from Europe.  

If they are going to campaign for ‘Brexit’, they must find a way of doing so that does not undermine the logic of their own case that we are ‘better together’.  This referendum has the potential to expose the tensions that exist between Ulster Unionism and European Unionism.

Unless they come up with convincing arguments to the contrary, it may well be that, far from being a rival to the United Kingdom, continued membership of the EU is the only way that Ulster Unionism – and indeed British Unionism – can survive.