Why did nationalists in Northern Ireland shun the EU referendum?

EU referendum ballot papers being counted at the Belfast count centre
EU referendum ballot papers being counted at the Belfast count centre

Was the significantly lower nationalist turnout at the EU referendum due to apathy, a perception that it was a British decision, laziness by Sinn Fein in getting its vote out or commitment to the old republican position of opposition to the EU?

The most striking difference in turnout between unionist and nationalist areas saw 68 per cent of the electorate vote in North Down (up from 49.5 per cent in May’s Assembly election), while less than 49 per cent voted in West Belfast (down from 57.8 per cent in May’s election).

Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney. Lee Reynolds argues that SF put less energy into campaigning than it has done in denouncing the result

Sinn Fein chairman Declan Kearney. Lee Reynolds argues that SF put less energy into campaigning than it has done in denouncing the result

Among those who campaigned hardest for voters to come to the polls, there are a range of explanations for what happened.

The head of the Remain campaign in Northern Ireland, PR businessman Tom Kelly, says that he wasn’t surprised at the differential.

Mr Kelly, who is a former vice chairman of the SDLP, said he anticipated lower nationalist turnouts, something he put down to an increasing “tiredness” within nationalism, where the parties are disconnected from grassroots nationalist opinion.

“That’s one of the things I told the national campaign at the start – I never understood their modelling because it was based on assumptions, not on stats.”

Mr Kelly added: “It turns out that there was little to no polling done in Northern Ireland, and I think that was a mistake because even though I was saying that anecdotally I felt that immigration and the border would be the two top issues, nobody really took that seriously when I first joined the board 10 weeks ago.”

But Rodney McCune, the Remain campaign’s press manager in Northern Ireland, said: “It’s fair to say that the expectation in terms of what might be perceived as nationalist voters and turnout wasn’t met. That in part is down to whether you get your vote out.”

However, he added: “If every voter in Northern Ireland had voted Remain, it wouldn’t have changed the picture overall. But certainly in areas where Sinn Fein has historically done well the vote might not have been as strong as certainly we would have liked.”

David Hoey, a businessman from the north west who headed up the Leave.eu campaign in Northern Ireland (which was less high profile than the official campaign), said he believes that some Sinn Fein supporters stuck to the “old Sinn Fein position” and refused to vote for the EU because it “runs completely contrary to traditional republican ideas”.

He said that some Sinn Fein supporters must also have been disconcerted to find their party “fighting alongside the establishment” to keep Britain in the EU.

Lee Reynolds, the head of the Leave campaign in the Province and a DUP strategist, argued that ordinary nationalists are nothing like as enthusiastic about the EU as their political leaders, with Vote Leave research indicating that if it had targeted nationalist voters more than it managed to do “we could have done even better out of nationalist areas”.

Although he concedes that the SDLP campaigned hard, he added: “The amount of energy and rage that’s being expressed post the event is in start contrast to the energy they were expending beforehand, particularly on Sinn Fein’s part.”

More broadly, Mr Hoey said that many of those who wanted the UK to stay in the EU just didn’t put in the work required to get voters to come out: “I think a lot of Remain people were just happy to talk about it on Facebook and they thought that they’d done their bit by that, rather than actually going out and doing a bit of canvassing.”