As 2017 begins, the Deputy Chair of the European Movement in Northern Ireland (EMNI), Ciarán Hanna, gives his personal thoughts on the eventful year that was, and what is possibly ahead for the EMNI in 2017.
June 24th 2016 will live long in the memory. I was at the NI count for the EU Referendum result in the Titanic Exhibition Centre, Belfast. I was nervous when I was driven there by my flatmate, so a possible Leave result was not of the equation at all, as far as I was concerned.
I was under the belief that Remain needed to win big to bury the debate for a generation, because with Nigel Farage talking about ‘unfinished business’, a narrow Remain victory just would not do.
By June 22nd, I didn’t feel a thumping Remain was on the cards. Friends of mine in my local pub were all for Leave. Some of them were hard-working painters, who believe ‘foreigners’ had undercut them, and thus taken some of their work.
After casting my vote, we met a relative, and my father’s parting shot to him, thinking he was of the same ilk, was ‘Vote Remain!’. It transpired the relative actually then when on to vote leave, again because he felt the Co Antrim town he lived in was being overrun with foreigners.
As I was about to get the train for the count, a neighbour came over to triumphantly boast that she voted leave, again for the same reasons.
People who never had opinions about the EU suddenly did. For them, they saw Polish and Romanian people in their town, and for various reasons, they felt ‘enough was enough’. This is the fault of the EU. Therefore, vote out.
Not everyone who voted leave, of course, voted for that reason.
These examples are simply of those people whom have personally told me their intention and why. A few others informed me they voted leave to get back ‘sovereignty’ (whatever that means) and another said he was voting leave to give the establishment (whoever they are) a bloody nose.
I personally believed that membership of such as complicated organisation should never have been reduced to a base binary vote in the first place. The campaign was to take place in the context of a consistent drip-feeding of an anti-EU narrative particularly by the right-wing press. However, were those on remain as passionate as those advocating leave? No. The loud, angry voices shouting simple slogans like ‘Take Back Control’ would always be attractive. Nerdy students whispering ‘Stronger Together’ just didn’t seem to cut it somehow!
The debate in Northern Ireland never got started. The NI media thought it was a general election and trotted out politicians to argue the same points, which put people, genuinely undecided, off.
What was needed for years up to 2016, was factual programmes about what the EU is and does for everyone to watch. A monthly update from the European Parliament on the main evening news programmes, for example.
It was ridiculous in a debate on radio, a few weeks before the vote, to have to explain to people what the difference between the Commission and Parliament was. Surely, people should have been better informed before the campaign begun?
Our audience in Northern Ireland should have heard from all those whose work had either depended on EU membership, or benefitted from it before the campaign began. The default position was the EU is very flawed, but sure it’s better than uncertainty. No-one had the passion to upsell the whole project from the very get-go.
Sammy Wilson still trotted out to the very end that Northern Ireland was not a net beneficiary of EU membership. It was.
Again, personally, I feel we needed to hear from a broad range of civic society groups, trade unions, business groups and non-governmental organisations before the campaign began. We didn’t hear their voices in the media.
It’s all very well BBC Newsline highlighting the concerns by environmental and angling groups about what might happen to river quality now. Why could we not have heard of these concerns before?
All we heard that the EU is ‘anti-democratic’, run by ‘unelected bureaucrats’, lavishly spending ‘our money’ badly as the accounts have ‘never been audited’. The people want ‘control’ of their ‘borders’ and ‘sovereignty’. This was the narrative, and people bought into it.
And so, back to that fateful morning of 24th June in the TEC, Belfast. There were two TVs on, and around 1am, it just was not clear what way the referendum was going to go. I was pacing up and down like an expected father. Then, the Leave victories were relentless. By around 5am, David Dimbleby made that famous call that the decision of 1975 to continue membership of what is now the EU has been ‘reversed’.
Cue the whoops and hollers of Leave and the DUP, who rushed towards the screen.
For me, I felt a strange feeling of sickness. I had always been passionate about Europe and the EU. I had studied this in University, and benefitted from Freedom of Movement by living and working in Poland and France.
It was a huge, personal blow. I left the TEC with dawn breaking and loud, raucous cheering from Leave echoing through the car park.
I remember tweeting from the EMNI Twitter account just before I went to bed at 5.45am:
European Movement NI @EuroMoveNI 24 Jun 2016
“That’s it from us for tonight folks but not forever. The European Movement in Northern Ireland still has a purpose -hopefully”#euref
Post vote, I was relieved that Northern Ireland voted remain, but I was bitter at the way the campaign was fought, regretful remain lacked passion, and depressed that everything I believed in (reconciliation after war, internationalism, co-operation and solidarity, the idea of pooling sovereignty for the greater good etc ) seemed to have been jettisoned.
What have I done since then? I have attended an number of post-vote discussions on behalf of EMNI, including a new NI Council on Europe, along with fellow members Ian Parsley and Jane Morrice, which we will continue to be represented on.
Personally, I believe people did vote for an end to Freedom of Movement, so that has to be respected. If negotiations mean the UK has still to keep this freedom to be a member of the Single Market, then this is clearly not representing those who voted leave. (Not being a member of the Single Market would be a disaster for us in NI, but people voted Leave because of Freedom of Movement, so what can we do?)
I personally believe precedent has been established in having a referendum in the first place. If the vote was really about ‘sovereignty‘, let’s not leave the final decision to a government to decide, surely?
People have given their decision to leave the EU. This is now generally accepted. They effectively gave their consent for the PM to begin negotiations to leave. Now, should we be consulted on the final negotiations? If, at the end of the Article 50 process the Government gets a deal, should there be another referendum on these terms?
We can now finally say people have definitively voted to leave, although they were unaware of the terms before the June 23rd Referendum. If that is confirmed by a referendum accepting the final UK/EU deal, that will unite the country again, surely?
‘Remoaners’ can no longer say people didn’t know what they were actually voting for.
What if the country says no, though? Should we then default back to February 2016 (not June 22nd, as Cameron’s deal has already fallen) and rescind Article 50 and continue as you were? After all, the public voted to begin the process to leave, but rejected the best possible deal, so therefore no better deal would be achieved.
Would Leavers accept that result?
Again, speaking personally, I feel some public vote should be on the cards, but what happens if the deal is rejected by the people would be problematic.
Anyway, that’s down the road. For 2017, EMNI shall still try to push NI’s case with all stakeholders, and ensure our special case is recognised.
2016 is but a memory. Unfortunately, especially in Northern Ireland, we will have to work with the consequences of what happened then for a few years yet.
Ciarán Hanna was the Deputy Chair of the EMNI 2015/2016. The views expressed in this column are solely that of Mr Hanna.