Day before EU referendum, DUP ministry only anticipated Remain vote

Michelle McIlveen (right) pictured with other DUP ministers on the morning when it was confirmed that the UK had voted to quit the EU
Michelle McIlveen (right) pictured with other DUP ministers on the morning when it was confirmed that the UK had voted to quit the EU

The day before the EU referendum, a DUP adviser directed officials at Stormont’s agriculture ministry to work in anticipation of a Remain vote – despite the DUP campaigning to quit the EU.

DUP Agriculture and Environment Minister Michelle McIlveen’s special adviser (Spad) – who operates as the minister’s eyes and ears within the department and can make requests on behalf of the minister – asked for statements to be prepared in anticipation of a decision to stay in the EU.

The paperwork – which has been obtained by investigative news website The Detail under the Freedom of Information Act – came at a point when a Remain vote was widely expected, but when the polls still suggested a very close result.

Material released by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) shows that at 9.35am on June 22 – less than 24 hours before polls would open – officials were finalising, on the minister’s behalf, draft responses to Assembly questions.

It is clear from the documents which have been released that all of the draft answers were based on a UK decision to remain in the EU, and one answer even welcomed the end of “uncertainty” for the agriculture sector.

Emails show the comments were “prepared as requested by special adviser on the basis that UK remains in EU”, to be updated after the referendum.

The draft notes state that if the minister was asked for her assessment of the referendum result, she would answer: “Although the democratic view has been to remain ... the size of the leave vote represents a warning to political leaders that significant change is needed within the EU.”

By 11am on June 24, hours after it had emerged that the UK had voted to leave the EU, her script was redrafted to welcome Brexit and add: “The people of the UK have had their say and we must respect the democratic view. Although the UK has voted to leave the EU, this will not take effect until a withdrawal treaty has been concluded ... This period gives us time to negotiate contingency arrangements ...”

The original set of answers, which anticipated a decision to remain in the EU, also showed the minister would say: “I appreciate that for many agri-food businesses it has been difficult to plan ahead when there was uncertainty about the outcome of the referendum. That uncertainty has now been removed.”

But that answer was also redrafted in the wake of the Brexit result. The original remarks, which said a decision to remain in the EU would remove uncertainty for the industry, were deleted and the minister was instead prompted to say: “I believe this represents a new opportunity for the industry and that it is up to us to make the best of that new opportunity.”

The initial answer that was drafted in anticipation of a vote to remain in the EU, planned that the minister would say: “Our agri-food and drink sector depends heavily on its export markets ... The latest figures indicate that 60% of exports of all goods and 90% of all food and drinks exports from Northern Ireland go to EU countries.”

But after a Brexit decision was confirmed, the minister’s script was amended to add the line: “Going forward we will have opportunities to open up new markets with other parts of the world, create new trading arrangements with the EU and I believe there will be scope to sell more to GB.”

A DUP spokesman said of the decision only to draft answers anticipating a Remain vote: “This did not reflect any assumption about the likely outcome but, given the minister had been arguing in favour of leaving the EU, she was obviously much more familiar with potential answers to questions in light of that eventuality.”

UUP leader Mike Nesbitt told The Detail it was “extraordinary that no contingencies were put in place for a leave victory in the Brexit vote, particularly by those who were campaigning for just such an outcome”.