“On-balance” to use the first Minister’s language, the DUP’s call to vote to leave the EU is likely to be largely cost-free for her party. The vote which is now set for 23 June will come just seven weeks after the Stormont Assembly elections, will mark the end of a three year cycle of elections; local Councils, Westminster and the Assembly. The EU ballot may well therefore strike voters as an epilogue or afterthought to a 3 act play, rather than a scene with any significant lines to learn or performance to performances to watch-out for.
In all likelihood party funds across Northern Ireland (and other parts of the UK) will be depleted from weeks of electioneering and activists worn-out from pounding pavements and stuffing envelopes for the third year in a row. To be sure some attention in June will be focussed on Europe, but mostly on the football (there will be no matches played on the day of the referendum in case you were wondering).
The language around the debate is likely to be considerably less emotive than the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, although probably slightly more than last referendum we had (on the alternative vote) in 2011, yet the turnout (across the UK) may well be a deciding factor.
You may wonder if it’s still worthwhile measuring where all parties are on the EU, given that it’s a referendum not an election. After all First Minister Foster’s claim statement that while her party will “On-balance” will “recommend” a vote to leave, qualifying it by saying that “every voter has the opportunity to express a view we fully expect that DUP members and voters will hold a range of differing personal views as to what is in the best interests of the United Kingdom. They are fully entitled to do so” sounds almost like a soft-whip rather than an edict or an article of faith, one would associate with the Paisely era. It is perhaps worth remembering that Peter Robinson did say that Northern Ireland was better-off in the EU (though we don’t know he’ll be voting this time around).
But where parties stand is still significant; while elections are many referenda are few and often present issues on which the average voter has little emotional interest and who then may default to political comfort zone, obeying a party or newspaper or candidate of choice. This seems to be the case in the Republic of Ireland where votes on various EU treaties have produced mixed results. In an episode of the hilarious animated series on modern Ireland, “Martin’s Life” a family from Cork discuss the Republic of Ireland’s referendum on same-sex marriage, the father’s main question is simply “are Fianna Fáil in it?” before concluding that he will cast his vote for “the bisexuals” in order to get rid of “that other crowd”.
This will certainly not be the first time an election on the EU has brought other matters to the fore, Ian Paisley Senior was a known opponent of the EU, but it never stopped him using the MEP elections to his own and his party’s advantage, in fact I can remember very few European elections where EU issues came to the fore (and I mean anywhere in Europe!). For all reports of the rise of pressure groups and interest lobbies political parties are still the ships in which ideas sail in modern politics, they have after all the ready manpower and resources to fight any referendum and they will be looked-to for guidance and motivation.
The complexities attached to the European Union could well mean that many voters could default to political comfort zones, listening to local representatives or trusted news sources. This is worth considering, especially for those keen to see the UK remain in the Union, who, despite often having better access to facts than their opponents would do well to walk humbly on the campaign trail. One area where the Better Together campaign in the Scottish referendum came unstuck was its reportedly ‘patronising’ tone in some of its broadcasts. Many of the facts or predictions being bandied-around by both sides will come under scrutiny, or worse, simply be labelled as ‘scaremongering’.
The famous former editor of the Guardian CP Scott once held that “comment is free, but facts are sacred” but to many in Northern Ireland, the discovery of new facts does little to alter people’s long-held beliefs and opinions, it is narratives which are often clung-to and those seeking to gain popular support on issues might want to consider how they can bring voters along with them, rather than simply handing them facts and expecting them to follow.
In last Friday’s Guardian John Harris wrote that ‘in’ campaigners needed to look at ordinary ‘out’ voters:
“Whatever their motivations, the resentments they wanted to play on are real – and rational…Those who want Britain to stay in the European Union need to acknowledge them, think deeply, and not so lightly dismiss what their side is up against. Because if they don’t, the great calamities of which they warn will be all the more likely to come to pass”.
There is simply no way the ‘In’ side can rely on all those who’ve received cash from the EU to vote their way, by that logic they could claim to have every Orangeman in the country on their side. That is why the statement by the Ulster Farmer’s Union last week, that “there was no compelling case to leave the EU” is significant, it was not a statistic pointed-out buried in a Brussels briefing, but the voice of local farmers themselves.
The UUP (on the losing ‘Out’ side in ’75) is due to decide this on Saturday how to swing on the EU vote, having a unionist voice to advocate staying in could be a real boost to that campaign. Their experience of the 1998 referendum is likely to cause them to think carefully. I began by saying the DUP might not see much harm to them in recommending an ‘Out’ vote, but to those who want to remain there is too much at stake to be complacent.