On Thursday 23 June, the United Kingdom will hold a referendum on its membership of the European Union. In this Just the Facts, which is part of a series European Movement Ireland is producing on the forthcoming referendum, we look at the possible impact on Northern Ireland should the UK vote to leave. While the 1.86 million people living in Northern Ireland represent less than 3% of the UK population, it is arguable that the region would be particularly impacted by a decision to leave due to its geographical location and economic structure.
Positions of Political Parties in Northern Ireland
Only one of the five main political parties in Northern Ireland is campaigning for a ‘Leave’ vote in the EU referendum, namely the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) which is the largest political party in Northern Ireland, having won 202,567 (29.2%) first preference votes in the Assembly elections on 5 May 2016. The First Minister of Northern Ireland and Leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, has stated: “The Democratic Unionist Party has always been Eurosceptic in its outlook… Therefore we will on balance recommend a vote to leave the EU”.
Sinn Féin, which won 166,785 (24.0%) first preference votes in the Assembly elections, is campaigning for the UK to remain a member of the EU. Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness MLA has stated “Ireland’s place north and south is in Europe and leading change in Europe… If there is a vote in Britain to leave the EU there is a democratic imperative to provide Irish citizens with the right to vote in a Border Poll to end partition and retain a role in the EU.”
The UUP (Ulster Unionist Party), which won 87,302 (12.6%) first preference votes in the Assembly elections, the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party), which won 83,364 (12.0%) first preference votes, and the Alliance Party, which won 48,447 (7.0%) first preference votes, are all also campaigning for a ‘Remain’ vote.
Common Travel Area
The Common Travel Area allows for free movement of people between the United Kingdom and Ireland outside the EU’s Schengen Area. While the Common Travel Area is founded on a bilateral, political understanding between the UK and Ireland, it is not the subject of any legal treaty between the two countries and is not defined in national law.
If the UK votes to leave the EU, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will become an external EU border. This may result in the introduction of border controls on the Irish border if the British government believes such a measure is necessary to prevent an abuse of the Common Travel Area by EU citizens seeking to migrate into the UK through Ireland.
Trade and Economy
Over €3 billion is traded each year between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and this would be negatively impacted by the imposition of customs and border controls. It has been estimated by the Economic and Social Research Institute that should the UK leave the EU, Anglo-Irish trade would decline by more than 20%.
EU funding programmes have contributed significant public funds to Northern Ireland in order to consolidate peace there. The EU has provided over €1.3 billion to Northern Ireland since 1995, with an additional €229 million committed through the PEACE IV Programme which is to run from 2014 to 2020. It is unclear if these funds would remain accessible if the UK were to leave the EU.
At a time when the Stormont Administration deficit is estimated at 33% of Gross Value Added (GVA), the loss of such funds combined with the decline in trade could have a major effect on the Northern Irish economy.
Northern Ireland is significantly more dependent on agriculture than the rest of the UK. 6% of all jobs in Northern Ireland are in the agricultural sector, which is three times higher than the UK average.
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) payment to Northern Irish farmers from 2014 to 2020 is expected to amount to approximately €2.5 billion. The British government has not indicated whether it will continue CAP payments or a similar agricultural payment in the event of the UK leaving the EU.
Currently, any citizen of the 28 EU Member States is entitled to additional rights as a citizen of the EU, including the right to move, live, study and work freely within the EU and the right to vote for and stand as a candidate in European Parliament and municipal elections.
If the UK decides to leave the European Union, an unprecedented situation will arise where those who claim Irish citizenship in Northern Ireland will remain EU citizens but those who claim British citizenship will not. This could be the first time a significant number of EU citizens would be unable to utilise their rights as EU citizens in the country where they were born and live.
Justice and Security
In the period from 2004 to 2013, 192 terror and criminal suspects were passed to the British authorities from Ireland utilising the European Arrest Warrant (EAW). Should the UK leave the EU, it would be unable to utilise the EAW unless a bilateral agreement was negotiated between both states. This may create additional difficulties in the area of crime prevention and detection in Northern Ireland.