Maybe Stormont shouldn’t say "so what?" to UKIP rise

UKIP Assembly member David McNarry and his party leader Nigel Farage at Stormont.

UKIP Assembly member David McNarry and his party leader Nigel Farage at Stormont.

By Steven McCaffery

FRESH from its success in England, the UK Independence Party says it is planning to field up to 30 candidates in Northern Ireland’s local government elections next year.

But regardless of how it performs in the already crowded marketplace for unionist votes, the pressure it is exerting on David Cameron’s Conservative Party over EU membership already has implications for Northern Ireland.

Stormont’s latest political catchphrase may well be “So what?” – following a TV clash between local politicians – but both sides of the European debate say the tension UKIP has stirred in Tory ranks should not be ignored.

UKIP’s sole Stormont representative David McNarry said his party will soon select its Northern Ireland candidate for the European Parliamentary elections due to be held in May or June of 2014.

But while UKIP was already expected to fight the Euro poll, he said it is now also finalising plans to field around 30 candidates in Northern Ireland’s local government elections due to take place on the same day.

“We are planning to stand in each of the 11 new councils,” said Mr McNarry, whose party currently has only one councillor.

European elections are usually dominated by traditional Orange and Green rivalries, but if there is a greater focus on Euro-sceptic sentiment, UKIP is likely to face questions over the direct investment Northern Ireland has enjoyed from Europe, totaling €7,533 million since 1988 [see the attached document compiled by the European Commission here].

Mr McNarry said: “When you break it down to a region such as Northern Ireland, you have got to take on board that the money that comes from the EU, it could be construed as recycled money.

“It is money that the United Kingdom pays into Europe and comes back.”

The UK is one of the largest contributors to the EU and receives less in return – Treasury figures for the UK’s net contributions to the EU put it at £8.1 billion for 2011.

But pro-European voices claim this cost is vastly outweighed by the economic benefits of EU membership.

Mr McNarry said the special Peace Funds supplied by the EU to help Northern Ireland emerge from conflict were of significant value, but he questioned the way in which the cash was spent, and whether it allowed the Westminster government to “cop out” on funding it should have given.

He claimed European fisheries policy has led to a decline in the industry in Northern Ireland, but recognised the substantial EU funding for farmers and said it should come from London after any EU-exit.

Prime Minister David Cameron is under growing internal party pressure to harden his line on EU membership, having pledged to renegotiate the UK’s position and to hold a referendum on membership in 2017 if the Conservatives win the next election.

Observers have asked if uncertainty over Britain’s future in the EU, coming at the same as Scotland debates independence, could have implications for the future of the UK itself.

But Mr McNarry said: “On the contrary, coming out of Europe, which is the right thing to do, and the Scottish people staying within the Union, both those things will actually re-brand the Union and strengthen the Union as never before.”

It has been argued that Northern Ireland’s economy has a closer relationship with the EU than other parts of the UK such as England and, as a result, could suffer in any UK shift on Europe.

While the EU debate rages among David Cameron’s party, politicians in Belfast and Dublin are currently involved in talks linked to securing a new EU Peace Fund of €150 million to provide further support to Northern Ireland and border counties.

Sinn Féin has fought high profile campaigns against treaties extending EU influence over member states, but says it recognises the benefits of EU membership.

The party’s former Director of European Affairs, Eoin Ó Broin, who now advises Sinn Féin’s Dáil team on European and economic matters, says the north and south of Ireland are intertwined when it comes to the EU.

He cites the similarity in economies north and south, plus the cross-border element of some EU aid packages on the island of Ireland, while EU projects to remove the impact of borders are a further factor.

“Even if there wasn’t an issue around partition, even if you weren’t talking to a member of Sinn Féin, even if there hadn’t been a history of conflict, you can’t think about the north and its relationship with the EU outside of the south and the south’s relationship with the EU, that’s really important,” he said.

“For either part of the island, north or south, at this point in our economic and social development to be thinking of not being inside the EU doesn’t make any sense.

“Even though I am a very strong critic of the European Union, even though there are very large parts of the institutional architecture and the policy decisions of the EU that I would disagree with, the social and the economic interests of people on the island at this point in time, are best served by being within the EU.

“There is a need for the EU to change a whole range of things for those benefits to be maximised and for the negatives that currently exist to be lessened.

“But I think it would be very bad for the north irrespective of England, Scotland and Wales, if the north were not to be in the EU at this point in time.”

Tensions in Conservative Party ranks have heightened since UKIP made gains in the recent local government elections in England, securing around 25% of votes where it stood.

It is noted that over recent years the Tories poured major political resources into Northern Ireland but failed to make any electoral impact.

At this point few expect UKIP to make major inroads on this side of the Irish Sea – particularly given the euro-sceptic stance of mainstream unionists such the DUP – but it is UKIP’s current ability to spook Tories in England that could have a UK-wide affect.

We don’t have to look too far to see the impact a small party with a high profile leader can have on bigger opposition – just ask TUV leader Jim Allister.

“I think that the Tories have made some moves, but the pledge of a referendum in 2017, I don’t think is going to do it for them,” said the former Democratic Unionist MEP, who left the party over its decision to share power with Sinn Féin.

“We do need a referendum. I don’t think David Cameron will get any significant changes to the relationship with Europe because I don’t see how that would evolve in a meaningful way.

“So I think the sooner we have an in/out referendum, the better.

“And obviously the UKIP momentum is pushing the Conservatives.”

The most severe electoral threat posed by the TUV to the DUP has diminished, though Mr Allister remains a high profile critic of the party in the Assembly.

But the experience of the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jnr, who successfully defended his father’s North Antrim Westminster seat in a contest with the TUV leader, suggests David Cameron may have to face his political challenge head-on.

Mr Paisley said he stood on his political record and that of his party and sought to demonstrate that the DUP “couldn’t be challenged on the right”.

“You have to remain close to your electorate,” he said, “and you have to go out and sell your political message."