Dr Sophie Whiting on: 'The EU debate in Northern Ireland'

Posted in: Brexit, Economics, UK politics

Dr Sophie Whiting, Lecturer, Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies.

The regions of the UK have varying experiences of EU membership; it is therefore inevitable that the BREXIT debate will vary across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Political preferences in Northern Ireland remain dominated by voters constitutional preferences. However, this is on the basis of Northern Ireland’s place within the UK, rather than being (or not being) a part of the European Union. That is not to say that the issue of EU membership is insignificant in Northern Ireland, rather the debate takes on a different form.

Northern Ireland is subject to a unique set of local circumstances that have impacted the nature of the debate surrounding the EU referendum. Firstly, as the only region of the UK that shares a border with another EU state, BREXIT could redefine economic and political relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Secondly, since the late 1990s, Northern Ireland has been in receipt of crucial structural investment funding from the EU to facilitate the peace process. Whilst the EU debate in Northern Ireland is touched by similar issues that have appeared across UK, such as the economy and immigration, the discussion is also shaped by issues surrounding identity, peace, regeneration and what BREXIT could mean for the future of the Union.

Where do the parties stand?

The Northern Ireland Assembly is split on the issue of BREXIT. On the Unionist side, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest party in Northern Ireland and by tradition euro-sceptic, are campaigning to leave along with the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) and UK Independence Party (UKIP). The Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) on the other hand are campaigning to remain within a reformed EU. Yet it is expected that party members of the DUP and UUP will have a free vote.

Within the nationalist bloc both Sinn Fein and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) are campaigning to remain in the EU along with the cross communal Alliance Party.

Whilst unionist parties are split on the issue, data from the Northern Irish Election Survey (2015) identifies a strong link between identity and views on EU membership amongst the electorate. In response to the question, ‘should the UK leave the EU?’ those identifying as Irish were most likely to disagree (55%) with British identifiers being less than half that (26%).[1]

At the heart of the peace process was the changing notion of sovereignty and the shifting concept of national borders, as north/south economic and political co-operation increased. For nationalists, minority status within Northern Ireland was appeased by the prospect of dual nationality and both parts of the island being in the EU. Therefore, whilst some unionist arguments may rest on how British sovereignty has been undermined by the EU, for nationalists, this is part of the appeal.

The Economy: What has the EU done for us?

With connections to the Republic of Ireland, Britain and the EU, the Northern Irish economy is attractive to foreign investment and emerging markets. The Northern Irish economy has grown significantly since the ‘Troubles’, yet unemployment rates are still slightly higher than the UK average and economic growth still lags behind.[2] Further legacies of the conflict on the region’s economy include disparity between Catholic (8%) and Protestant (6%) unemployment rates.[3] Whilst, economic activity rates in the region are increasing and the disparity between religious communities is closing[4] the potential for BREXIT to unsettle the Northern Irish economy is a key argument for the stay campaign. More specifically, whether leaving the EU would unsettle the region to the extent that not only the economy will be put at risk, but the foundations of the peace process would be undermined.

With the aim of sustaining economic growth, promoting social inclusion and building positive communal relations, Northern Ireland has been in receipt of European Structural and Investment Fund Programmes. As part of these funds the region has received £1.39 billion (2007 – 2013) and is set to benefit from a further £1 billion (2014 – 2020). Documents for the Northern Ireland Assembly estimate that support from the EU between 2007-2013 accounted for 8.4% of annual GDP.[5] Arguments to remain in the EU stress how losing this stream of funding would have negative implications for Northern Ireland’s post-conflict society. To counter, those in the leave camp maintain that the proportion of money the UK puts in to the EU is more than Northern Ireland receives in return.

Across the UK ‘fear tactics’ surrounding BREXIT largely play on the uncertainty surrounding the economy. In Northern Ireland, this takes on a more emotive nature. Particularly whether the loss of EU funding would undermine structural growth, community relations and ultimately the peace process.

What about immigration?

Northern Ireland’s demographic change from international migration is small relative to that of the rest of the UK. Traditionally, concern in Northern Ireland has been the net flow of people leaving the region as opposed to entering. During the economic downturn (2007/8 -2012/13), the total number of people moving to Northern Ireland to live reduced by 24% whilst the number of people leaving increased by 12%. This was the highest population loss due to migration since the peace process. By mid 2013-14 all devolved regions experienced an increase in the number of people coming to live from outside the UK. The largest increase was Scotland (17.7%) with the smallest being Northern Ireland (4.4%).[6]

This is not to say that immigration is a non-issue, particularly in relation to EU membership. There has been an increase from Polish immigration post 2004 and similarly Romania and Bulgaria in 2014.

Whilst tensions do exist in Northern Ireland surrounding housing, jobs and immigration, and remain part of the BREXIT debate, it is not as pressing as seen in rest of the UK. When asked in the Northern Irish election study what the most important issue was at the last general election, only 3.1% of respondents in Northern Ireland chose immigration, the NHS and employment being of greatest concern. For the British Election Study, a similar survey across the rest of the UK, immigration came out as the top political issue (26.4%) followed by the economy (9%).[7]

What does this mean for devolution?

It is difficult to separate the impact of the UK leaving the EU to the level of devolved regions. The debate in Northern Ireland so far has emphasised the fragility of the Northern Irish economy as well as the peace process. What is clear, however, is that this referendum highlights a fascinating aspect of post-devolution politics in the UK, especially if the UK as a whole supports a BREXIT whilst Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales wish to remain within the European Union.


British Election Study, 2015 http://www.britishelectionstudy.com/data-objects/cross-sectional-data/

Northern Ireland Election Survey, 2015 http://reshare.ukdataservice.ac.uk/851957/

Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, Northern Ireland Composite Economic Index; January 2016 www.detini.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/deti/NI%20Composite%20Economic%20Index%20Statistical%20Bulletin%20Q3%202015.pdf

Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, Labour Force Survey Religion Report; February 2016


Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, Long-Term International Migration Statistics for Northern Ireland (2014); August 2015 http://www.nisra.gov.uk/archive/demography/population/migration/Mig1314-Bulletin.pdf

The Consequences for the Northern Ireland Economy from a United Kingdom exit from the European Union Briefing Note: CETI/OU, 2/15; March 2015 http://crossborder.ie/site2015/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/2015-03-22-brexit-ceti-specialist-advisor.pdf


This blog post is part of a new IPR Series – all related to the BREXIT debate and the EU Referendum. This is the first in a collection of commissioned blog posts which will be published as an IPR Policy Brief in May 2016. Sign up to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or to our mailing list to receive invitations to our events and copies of our Policy Briefs.  

[1] Northern Ireland Election Survey, 2015
[2] Economic growth, 2015 in the UK 2.4%, NI 1.6%: Northern Ireland Composite Economic Index.
[3] Labour Force Survey Religion Report
[4] In 1992, Catholic and Protestant unemployment rates were 18 and 9 per cent respectively.
[5] The Consequences for the Northern Ireland Economy from a United Kingdom exit from the European Union
[6] Long-Term International Migration Statistics for Northern Ireland (2014).
[7] British Election Study.

Posted in: Brexit, Economics, UK politics


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