NI Vote Leave chief: Blair-Major visit gave us a surge in support

Former prime ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair share a platform for the Remain campaign at the University of Ulster in Londonderry
Former prime ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair share a platform for the Remain campaign at the University of Ulster in Londonderry

There was a moment in the EU Referendum campaign when hard evidence proved to Lee Reynolds that the Remain camps biggest efforts were actually pushing people further away from the EU.

It was when in early June the former Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major shared a stage for the only time during the campaign in Londonderry – an event which made national headlines – and warned that leaving the EU would not only jeopardise peace in Northern Ireland, but also potentially break up the United Kingdom.

Mr Reynolds, one of the sharpest minds in the DUP’s backroom team, had been seconded to Vote Leave to be its Northern Ireland director two months previously.

Recalling the Blair-Major visit, Mr Reynolds says emphatically: “Oh that gave me the biggest boost. We had software for people who had signed up for an email or to volunteer. The morning of their visit, I had 2,600 people signed up on that system. When I went into the system the following day, I had over 3,000.”

He is reluctant to speculate about what aspect of the visit caused the backlash, but says “all I can tell you is that my numbers jumped – whatever they said, people hadn’t liked it”.

Rodney McCune, media manager for the Remain campaign in Northern Ireland, says that “any event involving politicians like Blair who have baggage – in particular in Northern Ireland, largely but not exclusively with the unionist electorate – there always are potential negatives”.
But he says that other concerns that John Major’s warning about the potential breakup of the Union if the UK voted to leave could push nationalists towards that position were not borne out, with Foyle recording one of highest Remain votes in the UK.

Although the high profile visitors attracted media attention, Tom Kelly – who headed up the Remain campaign in Northern Ireland – believes that perhaps there were “too many UK voices coming through Northern Ireland”.

“There was an element where, I suppose to sex up the campaign, it was decided to bring in people – not just from our side, obviously the leave side were doing exactly the same – and I think that was in many ways regrettable because the arguments that should have been put in front of people in Northern Ireland were Northern Ireland-specific to us.

“Yes, it was a national referendum, but it was up to every nation within the UK to make the case in the best interests of the people where they live. So it was a bit pointless bringing in high profile people all the time.
“Having said that, the place doesn’t suffer from having a lot of national Government ministers coming into Northern Ireland – that’s a good thing.”

At the start of the campaign, there was a widespread expectation of a very strong Remain vote in Northern Ireland. One report by NatCen Social Research, published seven months ago and based on an average of three polls in Northern Ireland, suggested that the Remain vote could be as high as 75 per cent.

Of the five big parties, only one – the DUP – was for Leave, while the anti-EU print media bias complained of by the Remain team in London simply did not exist in Belfast. Of the three local daily newspapers, two were for Remain (the Irish News and Belfast Telegraph).

And yet – despite a host of senior business figures, academics, economists and trade unions endorsing the Remain position – low turnouts in nationalist areas contributed to the Northern Ireland vote being surprisingly close: 55.8 per cent for Remain to 44.2 per cent for Leave.

David Hoey, a businessman who headed up in Northern Ireland (which was less high profile than the official campaign), wasn’t shocked at the scale of the local Leave vote: “There was private polling being done, so I knew that Northern Ireland wasn’t edge of the seat stuff, but on the Wednesday [the day before the election] I knew that we’d pulled some of the vote back.”

Mr Kelly says that he wasn’t surprised at the result in Northern Ireland, having at the start of the campaign put money on the result being 55-45 in favour of Remain and is dismissive of suggestions that Remain should have performed better in the Province.

“I don’t know how anybody in the media following politics would actually have thought that,” he says, pointing to the strong DUP support in May’s Assembly election and the falling nationalist turnout evidenced in that election.

His media manager, Rodney McCune, had greater expectations, hoping for “60 per cent plus”.

Both sides speak of an element of fatigue among the members of political parties who had just come out of an election. But the level of canvassing seems to have been more significant on the Leave side. Mr Kelly says: “There was nowhere near the level of canvassing done in nationalist areas that goes on for Westminster or the Assembly – no real canvassing kicked in, I would say, until the last 10 days”.

Mr Reynolds said that at the outset of the campaign he realistically hoped for Northern Ireland to vote 60-40 in favour of Remain: “We had done a significant piece of research at the end of February before the campaign began and it indicated to us that the situation was 70/30 in favour of Remain – 30 per cent for us, 60 per cent for Remain and 10 per cent don’t knows, but the don’t knows leaning towards Remain.

“But that research also showed us that our 30 per cent was solid and there was a lot of soft underbelly in the Remain side. So the aim of the campaign was to just eat into that soft underbelly as much as we possibly could.”

The research showed Ulster Unionist voters divided, but a “clear opportunity to get their voters over to the Leave cause” and “scope within nationalists”.

Part of his strategy then involved a series of Ulster Unionists coming out to endorse a Leave vote in the final week of the campaign.

The Vote Leave campaign was an overwhelmingly unionist operation, with Mr Reynolds employing a fellow DUP member, Ruth Maxwell, as his sole paid assistant and working out of the DUP’s east Belfast headquarters on Dundela Avenue.

But the volunteers were not exclusively unionist. Mr Reynolds recalls a socialist from New Lodge in north Belfast who leafletted the area twice and two enthusiastic nationalist small businessmen from Dungannon who postered their area.

Mr Reynolds says that Remain “took a lot of people for granted”. He says: “I would meet Remain campaigners, many of whom lived in the town and wouldn’t know one end of a cow from another, who were pronouncing about how every farmer would be voting to stay.”

Although he does not link it to the Blair-Major visit, Mr McCune says that some of the central messages of the Remain side always had the potential to backfire in Northern Ireland.

“There was a conflict in terms of messaging whereby threats about a second Scottish referendum, the breakup of the Union, was clearly a concern for unionist-minded voters. That wasn’t an issue of concern with an element of nationalist or republican voters who no doubt were asking: Why’s that bad thing, does it not bring a united Ireland a step closer? Clearly post-event, that is becoming a live issue.”

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