According to a survey conducted by Danske Bank in June 2015 the majority of residents in Northern Ireland wish to remain within the European Union. This survey – of over 1,000 individuals across Northern Ireland – offers a timely insight into public opinion in the region on continued membership of the EU.
In particular, the Danske Bank survey showed that 58 per cent of survey respondents preferred to remain in the EU, while only 16 per cent wished to exit and 26 per cent were uncertain. Interestingly, when asked about the terms and conditions surrounding the UK’s continued membership, 44 per cent of those respondents who wished to remain in the EU were content to retain the status quo, whereas the remaining 14 per cent preferred the UK to stay in Europe but under renegotiated terms.
The survey results, which indicate public support in Northern Ireland for continued EU membership, reveal a notable contrast with the mood in Great Britain. Indeed, recent polls show public opinion in Britain to be more divided on a potential exit from the EU. A July 2015 YouGov survey revealed 45 per cent of the British public prefer to remain in the EU, while 37 per cent wish to leave and a further 16 per cent are undecided.
According to Danske Bank Chief Economist Angela McGowan “support for EU membership is most likely higher in Northern Ireland because the region has always been a net recipient of EU funding. The Common Agricultural Policy, Structural Funds, Rural Development funds and the Peace and Reconciliation monies have all made a dramatic contribution to life in Northern Ireland over the last 40 years.”
Moreover, Ms McGowan added: “There are also some valid criticisms of the European Union around burdensome regulation on small companies and the Greek bailout earlier this year was considered by many to have pushed the democratic boundaries. Nonetheless, it appears that people in Northern Ireland, particularly older people, have an appreciation for the traditional support that flowed from Europe to Northern Ireland and many in the business community and in border areas enjoy being part of a larger market.”
The Centre for Cross Border Studies welcomes this valuable contribution to the debate provided here by the survey’s breakdown of results to a sub-regional level. Here, at a sub-regional level, the survey revealed a higher support for retaining EU membership within those sub-regions, in particular the North West and South region, in Northern Ireland that share a border with the Republic of Ireland, where respondents’ preference to remain within the EU amounted to 62 per cent and 61 per cent, respectively.
Commenting on these results, Ms McGowan noted that “with cross-border trade particularly important in the South region and in the North West, it is understandable that the majority of those living in border counties have little desire to see border posts re-erected and cross-border trade made more difficult.”
Nevertheless, according to these findings, enthusiasm for continued EU membership was markedly weaker within the North region (Carrickfergus, Antrim, Ballymena, Larne, Ballymoney). Indeed, while 51 per cent of those surveyed in this sub-region were content to stay in the EU, 21 per cent expressed a desire to exit, which is higher than the NI average of 16 per cent.
It is the view of CCBS that, given the significant socio-economic impact experienced by Northern Ireland since the UK and Ireland’s joint entry to the then EEC in 1973, whether through PEACE funding, INTERREG, or Structural and Cohesion funds, the voting public should be fully informed on all aspects of Northern Ireland’s place in Europe and the implications of a UK exit or a reformulated membership upon cross-border, and all-island co-operation. Over the coming months CCBS will be openly contributing to and providing a space for this vital discussion to develop in the run-up to the referendum.