Countdown to Brexit
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Countdown to Brexit in the Northern Ireland constituency most in favour of leaving the EU
Flags adorning a street in Ballymena in August 2019. Picture by Stephen Hamilton - Press Eye.

AS things stand, the 30,938 people in North Antrim who voted to leave the European Union will see that aspiration become a reality in two months’ time.

North Antrim is the Northern Ireland parliamentary constituency most in favour of exiting Europe with 62.2% of those who voted in the June 2016 referendum supporting leave compared to 44.2% across Northern Ireland as a whole.

The constituency also had a slightly higher percentage of pro-Brexit voters than Blaenau Gwent, statistically the most anti-EU area in Wales, in which 62% backed exiting. Meanwhile, in Moray – the voting area in Scotland most in favour of getting out of Europe – only 49.9% of voters supported leave.

In England, the port town of Dover had the same proportion of leave voters as North Antrim while in Boston, the UK's most pro-Brexit place, 75.6% of voters backed the leave campaign.

It may be more than three years since the European referendum, but for many in the North Antrim constituency – the DUP’s heartland – that desire to leave has not diminished despite the increased likelihood of a no-deal departure on October 31. Yesterday the Queen consented to the UK Government's request to suspend Parliament next month.

In a 2019 UK-wide online petition calling for Article 50 to be revoked, North Antrim was the constituency in Northern Ireland which had the fewest number of signatories.

“They voted to leave. It wasn’t as if we will half leave, we will partly leave, we will leave bits of it. It was very clear, we wished to leave the EU, every aspect of it,” North Antrim’s MP Ian Paisley Jnr told The Detail.

But why did almost two-thirds of voters in this rural Northern Irish constituency support Brexit?

Brexit vote breakdown in each Northern Ireland constituency.

In its entire history, North Antrim has only ever been represented at Westminster by unionist MPs and, from 1970 onwards, the seat has been held exclusively by members of the Paisley family.

As the founder of both the Free Presbyterian Church and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the late Ian Paisley’s fire and brimstone language translated seamlessly from the pulpit to politics.

His forceful opposition to the civil rights movement and republicanism in the 1960s represented a fresh, defiant style of unionism that threatened the Tory-affiliated brand – the sect that, since the creation of the Northern Irish state in 1921, had dominated the country's politics in every practical sense.

Reverend Paisley first ran for the UK Parliament in 1970, winning 41.2% of the vote in North Antrim. When Ian Paisley Jnr took over the reins from his father in 2010, he won 46.4% of the votes in the parliamentary constituency.

His percentage share dropped marginally to 43.2% at the 2015 general election, just over a year before the Brexit vote.

However, at the 2017 Westminster election – a year after the European referendum – Mr Paisley’s share of the vote rose to 58.9%.

The success of the DUP in the 2017 general election – when it won 10 parliamentary seats – put the pro-Brexit party in a position to establish a Confidence and Supply Agreement with the Conservative Party which, under Theresa May's leadership, needed the DUP’s support in order to establish a working majority in the House of Commons.

In return for enabling Theresa May to form a government, the deal secured an additional £1bn for Northern Ireland to be spent over the course of five years. This resulted in the development of an intimate working relationship between the Tories and the DUP, further bolstered by the need to deal with the fallout from Brexit.

Boris Johnson attended the DUP’s 2018 party conference and in July 2019, soon after he became Prime Minister, he held a private dinner with senior figures in the party. Meanwhile, leading Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg attended a fundraising event for the DUP in early 2019 at the Tullyglass Hotel in Ballymena, the town where Ian Paisley's constituency office is located.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron visiting the Old Bushmills Distillery in North Antrim in February 2016, four months before the Brexit referendum. Picture - Press Eye.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron visiting the Old Bushmills Distillery in North Antrim in February 2016, four months before the Brexit referendum. Picture - Press Eye.

North Antrim is home to notable places such as the award-winning floral village of Broughshane and the Old Bushmills Distillery.

Rathlin, Northern Ireland’s only inhabited island, is also located in North Antrim. Scotland is only 15 miles away from the island, making the constituency geographically closer to Great Britain than it is to the Irish border.

In Ballymena, where according to the 2011 census almost 66% of the population identify as Protestant, territory is marked out with Union Jacks, loyalist paramilitary murals and flags in support of Soldier F.

There are also republican areas in Ballymena where posters commemorating the 1981 hunger strikers can be found on display. Such imagery isn’t unique to any one region in Northern Ireland where often symbols and identity dominate the landscape.

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"Most farmers said, ‘we’ve had enough of this, this is our chance to say yay or nay to this policy’ and they voted against it”
North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jnr in the People's Park in Ballymena in August 2019. Picture by Stephen Hamilton - Press Eye.

When asked what drove support for Brexit in his constituency, North Antrim MP Ian Paisley told The Detail: “I’d say about 60% of the reason people voted leave was economic and about 40% of it was emotional. That’s what I assess my electorate voted on.”

He said it’s a unionist constituency and the people are proud of their Britishness, but that the leave campaign was also about establishing new trade relationships.

Mr Paisley added: “I’ve worked in this constituency for over 20 years now and there isn’t a week goes by that I haven’t had a complaint from farmers about the operation of the Common Agricultural Policy.

"After 40 years of experience of working the policy, most farmers said, ‘we’ve had enough of this, this is our chance to say yay or nay to this policy’ and they voted against it.”

Robert Hanna is a 42-year-old pro-Brexit farmer from North Antrim. He spoke to The Detail at his home, not far from Cullybackey, where he has lived with his wife for 16 years. His father bought the land about 30 years ago. He currently has 70 cows and around 60 sheep.

Mr Hanna said: “The EU want you to jump through so many hoops in order to do the job that I felt, and still feel, we would be better off doing without the hoops.

“The red tape which they impose is silly and it makes farming difficult. You have people who know nothing about farming telling you what you should be doing and I don't agree with it.”

Earlier this year on The Detail’s podcast, The Brexit Club, the president of the Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU), Ivor Ferguson, said he feared 50% of sheep farmers could go out of business because of Brexit.

Mr Ferguson had previously said that a no-deal Brexit would be “catastrophic” for the agricultural industry. Mr Hanna doesn’t agree.

He said: “I would take no deal at this stage. At the end of the day, Germany are still going to want to sell John Deere tractors to the UK.

“All of these other European countries too, they need to trade with us. Ok, it might be difficult for a year if there is no deal but we'll get there.

“The farmers I talk to all voted leave and they still want it. I heard an UFU representative in the media recently saying he speaks for 11,000 farmers here who are against Brexit. I would like to get speaking to that man to tell him that he doesn't speak for me.”

Mr Hanna also stated that he and his family would traditionally be DUP voters, dating back to his grandfather who was a supporter of Ian Paisley Snr.

He added: “We don't feel pressure to vote or think the same as the DUP, but we do tend to vote for them, as many people around here do.”

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"Maybe after Brexit we might be in a better position"
The Rally for a Future initiative which was set up by staff from JTI Gallaher and Michelin in Ballymena in February 2015. Picture by Matt Mackey - Press Eye.

North Antrim suffered some significant pre-Brexit economic hits with the loss of more than 1,600 jobs following the closures of Michelin tyre factory and JTI Gallaher’s cigarette factory – both in Ballymena.

JTI Gallaher, which at its peak employed around 2,000 people, announced its withdrawal from Northern Ireland to eastern Europe in 2014. It finally closed its doors in October 2017.

In November 2015, Michelin broke the news that it would cease production at its Ballymena site in April 2018, blaming high energy costs as one of the contributing factors with cheaper options available in Europe. The closure led to over 850 people losing their jobs.

Ballymena man Rodney Quigley, who was elected as an independent unionist councillor this year, lost his job at Michelin.

He told The Detail: “Ballymena was a vibrant town. JTI Gallaher and Michelin were two of the top businesses in Northern Ireland and there was never any chat of either of them closing.

“Some shops have left the town as well. If you said 10 years ago that those businesses would have disappeared from Ballymena, people would have laughed at you. Then, all of a sudden, B&Q, JTI Gallaher and Michelin all closed. The impact hasn’t really hit home yet.”

When asked if he fears that a no-deal Brexit could further exacerbate economic problems in North Antrim, Mr Quigley added: “The decision had already been made to close Michelin in 2015, JTI Gallaher before that, so there’s no point in people scaremongering. Maybe after Brexit we might be in a better position in that regard.”

A leave voter, Cllr Quigley continued: “I can see why there are arguments for both sides but I’m an optimist. I think that if we leave the EU there will be more opportunities for investment because there will be fewer restrictions on business.”

Regarding the economics behind Brexit, Ian Paisley Jnr said: “By and large, I think my constituents saw leaving as a way of having a better economic deal.

“The chairman of the leave campaign locally is one of Northern Ireland’s biggest and best entrepreneurs, William Wright. I think people listen to entrepreneurs and the business people locally on this.”

Boris Johnson pictured at Wrightbus in Ballymena in February 2016. Picture by Kelvin Boyes - Press Eye.

Boris Johnson pictured at Wrightbus in Ballymena in February 2016. Picture by Kelvin Boyes - Press Eye.

Sir William Wright is the co-founder of the Wright Group. The company’s main subsidiary Wrightbus, which is based in Ballymena, manufactures buses and employs more than 1,100 people.

Wrightbus announced significant job losses in 2018 with uncertainties “particularly in the UK market,” to blame and in July 2019, it stated it was seeking investors due to cashflow problems.

Its latest accounts filed with Companies House show a downturn in the manufacturer’s finances with a pre-tax profit of £5.1m on a turnover of £181m at the end of December 2017 compared to £6.5m and £214m respectively at the end of 2016.

Following Boris Johnson’s appointment as Prime Minister, Ian Paisley told him in the House of Commons that Wrightbus was experiencing “significant economic hardship”.

Boris Johnson, who visited the Ballymena factory in February 2016 to confirm a £62m order of 195 Routemasters for London, responded by saying: “We will do everything we can to ensure the future of that great UK company."

However, Wrightbus also publicised earlier this year that it had secured a multi-million pound contract to manufacture buses set for Hong Kong as well as an order for 20 London-bound, hydrogen-powered buses in a £12m deal. It also exports to the Republic of Ireland, other countries in Europe, Singapore and Mexico.

When The Detail contacted the company to ask what impact it feels a no-deal Brexit could have on its business, a spokeswoman said it would not be commenting due to "sensitive commercial issues ongoing".

As well as in business, Sir William Wright – who is now in his 90s – has also been involved in unionist politics. At one stage he held a senior position in the 1970s Unionist Vanguard movement, a group which had close ties with grassroots loyalism.

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"Brexit reflected the influence of identity politics here"
Flags, murals and bunting in Ballymena in August 2019. Picture by Stephen Hamilton - Press Eye.

With a no-deal exit looking increasingly likely, The Detail spoke to a former loyalist prisoner from Ballymena about his views on Brexit and the reasons for its high level of support in North Antrim. He asked not to be named.

The man, who voted remain, now helps to run a community project in Ballymena which he considers to be on the progressive wing of loyalism. It works with people who he said had “various roles in defence of unionism and the state” during the conflict.

He said: “There’s still a very strong, fundamental religious Protestant community here – the Free Presbyterian element. Those people, biblically, would see it that we shouldn’t be in the EU. That has been part of sermons over the years.

“Certainly, within fundamental Protestant thinking, some people think the EU is the beast mentioned in the Book of Revelations.”

Ian Paisley Snr, the founder of the Free Presbyterian Church, himself once referred to the EU as a “beast ridden by the harlot Catholic Church”.

“That mix of religion and politics is still very strong in North Antrim,” the interviewee added.

“We are very polarised, as many communities are, but I think absolutely, Brexit reflected the influence of identity politics here and in Northern Ireland more widely.

“I think identity and that broader feeling that ‘we are British’ fuelled support for Brexit here. Also, within loyalism, I think there was an element who thought Brexit would strengthen the union. I think that element might not even be comfortable with the Good Friday Agreement and power-sharing.”

The DUP opposed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The party refused to enter into power-sharing with Sinn Féin until 2007.

Bunting in Ballymena in August 2019. Picture by Stephen Hamilton - Press Eye.

Bunting in Ballymena in August 2019. Picture by Stephen Hamilton - Press Eye.

Concerned about the impact a no-deal Brexit could have, the former loyalist prisoner feels that the unionist leadership has failed to grasp how much the referendum result has unsettled the nationalist community in Northern Ireland – which could in turn weaken the union.

He continued: “We shouldn’t be ramming a Union Jack down people’s throats. We want people to be comfortable to live in Northern Ireland in the years to come and vote to remain in the union.

“The unionist mindset during the Troubles was about defending the border. I remember in jail we used to say ‘if we get out, we should build a wall’ like Donald Trump! If somebody said to me 30 years ago, we would still be in the UK but there would be no border I would have found it impossible.

“I looked at the Free State as a hostile country. I looked at the Gardaí and the Irish Army, big elements of them, as supporting the IRA’s aims. That was my mindset. But I now take a totally different view of where the Republic of Ireland stands.”

The man said that Sinn Féin’s support for remain, during the referendum, made it difficult for many loyalists to support staying in the EU.

He also said that many people in North Antrim “absolutely” take their lead from the DUP on political issues.

In 2013, Ian Paisley Jnr made three visits to Sri Lanka at the expense of its government. One was properly recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests but the other two visits, which he made with family members, were not recorded.

Parliament's Commissioner for Standards ruled that Mr Paisley breached House of Commons' rules on paid advocacy, declaration and registration of interests. He faced the first ever Westminster recall petition against an MP, triggered in July 2018, after the House of Commons agreed to suspend him for 30 ‘sitting days’.

The petition was signed by 7,099 people over the six week period it was open, but it needed to get 7,543 electorate signatures – 10% of North Antrim's constituents – in order to force a parliamentary by-election.

Commenting on this situation, the former loyalist prisoner said: "I feel really disgusted about Ian Paisley's holiday scandal. There have been a number of issues where his judgement has been bad.

“But that legacy of supporting big Ian (Snr) and the DUP outweighs it here."

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"Unionists are more attached to notions of British sovereignty than non-unionists”
Jim Allister at the Grassroots Out Brexit rally in the Titanic Exhibition Centre in March 2016 in Belfast. Picture - Press Eye.

In the village of Ahoghill the sentiments of local man John Kelly articulated the feelings of many regarding Brexit.

“Don’t mention that f*****g word to me. Jesus, don’t start. I’ve heard enough about it,” he told The Detail.

Ahoghill is a 15-minute drive from Ian Paisley’s constituency office in Ballymena. The North Antrim village hit the headlines in 2005 when a period of sustained anti-Catholic intimidation led to some people being forced to leave their homes.

Ahoghill falls in Bannside, a local council District Electoral Area (DEA) where two Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) candidates – Stewart McDonald and Timothy Gaston – got the most, and second most, first preference votes respectively in the May council election.

Jim Allister is the party’s leader and founder as well as its sole Assembly representative. He defected from the DUP in 2007 and established the TUV due to his former party’s decision to enter into a power-sharing executive with Sinn Féin.

Mr Allister remains a fierce critic of the Good Friday Agreement and of both the DUP and Sinn Féin.

He told The Detail: "Like the majority of my constituents I believe in national sovereignty and want to be part of a nation that can make its own laws, spend its own money and determine the interpretation of its own laws through its own courts – none of which you can achieve within the super state structures of the EU.”

Adding that North Antrim's people are "very wise," Mr Allister also feels the idea that the Brexit vote in his constituency was all about identity has been "a bit overplayed".

He continued: "It wasn't only unionists who voted to leave but certainly, unionists are more attached to notions of British sovereignty than non-unionists.”

Mr Allister's Northern Ireland Assembly constituency office is in the Ballymena suburb of Harryville, which made international news in the 1990s due to loyalist protesting outside the local Catholic church – Our Lady’s. The protests came after nationalists objected to a nearby Orange Order parade.

The church was demolished in 2013 – six years after St Mary’s, the local Catholic primary school, shut its doors – ending any official Catholic presence in the area.

Jim Allister was once a Member of European Parliament (MEP) for the DUP. He recently stood in the May 2019 European election for the TUV on a pro-Brexit ticket, imploring voters to "do their duty" and ensure two out of the three seats went to unionist candidates.

Ending up with over 60,000 first preference votes which placed him fifth in the overall pecking order, Mr Allister didn’t get elected and, for the first time, just one unionist was returned to Europe from Northern Ireland – the DUP’s Diane Dodds.

Mrs Dodds' stance on Brexit mirrors that of her party's. The other two Northern Ireland MEPs – Sinn Féin's Martina Anderson and Alliance's Naomi Long – are both anti-Brexit.

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“If it happened tomorrow again I would vote the same”
Valerie Quinn in the Joey Dunlop Memorial Garden in Ballymoney in August 2019. Picture by Stephen Hamilton - Press Eye.

Valerie Quinn is a senior project manager at a computer software company.

Rooted in the North Antrim marching band scene, Valerie became a member of a band from Clough, outside Ballymena, when she was a teenager before later joining Dunloy Accordion Band which she played with for 17 years. She also played in the Portglenone based Killycoogan Accordion Band for six years.

Aged 48, Valerie has a 13-year-old son with her partner of 20 years. She is currently the chair of a Facebook group called the Ulster Bands Forum which has more than 16,000 likes. Valerie runs the group on a voluntary basis.

More than 80 bands are expected to take part in a parade in the North Antrim town of Ballymoney for Saturday's Royal Black Institution demonstration.

When asked about how she thinks loyalist band members in North Antrim view Brexit, Valerie said: “The band scene is a really broad church.

“You have university lecturers, graduates, company owners, ministers and people who are unemployed. It has a broad range of views.

“I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of members of the band scene, and its supporters, would be in favour of Brexit. But I know many within the scene who would be remain as opposed to leave.

“I voted leave and all my family voted leave. I don’t regret voting that. If it happened tomorrow again, I would vote the same.”

Marching drums on 12th July in Ballymoney. Picture by Jonathan Porter - Press Eye.

Marching drums on 12th July in Ballymoney. Picture by Jonathan Porter - Press Eye.

Valerie also said that many people she knows are generally supportive of the DUP’s approach over Brexit, adding: “I know a lot of the politicians in the DUP. Maurice Bradley would be a good friend. I know Mervyn Storey as well. I know Arlene Foster too, through the band scene.”

Ms Quinn believes there was an identity aspect to the Brexit vote amongst band members in North Antrim.

She said: “It has been so clearly linked to the whole debate on a united Ireland. That in itself has raised concerns in the PUL (Protestant unionist loyalist) community.”

But she added: “It wasn’t just about identity and it wasn’t just about whether Northern Ireland remains part of the UK or not. I don’t think it’s as simple as that.

“We have heard that people didn’t know what they were voting for. My experience is, particularly bandsmen and women, that people became informed.”

Valerie commented that many people in bands from North Antrim mistrust Sinn Féin’s position in relation to Brexit, adding: “It’s only natural to have those fears about a united Ireland vote.

“The parallel that I always draw is that if there was a border poll tomorrow and the result wasn’t for a united Ireland there is a constant ability for re-voting until the decision suits a united Ireland. However, if it went the other way, there is never any opportunity to change that.”

COUNTDOWN TO BREXIT

  • July 24, 2019: Boris Johnson officially became the UK’s Prime Minister
  • September 3, 2019: The House of Commons returns after its summer recess
  • September 10, 2019: Anticipated suspension of Parliament
  • September 29, 2019 – October 2, 2019: Conservative Party conference
  • October 14, 2019: The Queen's speech opens a new session of Parliament
  • October 17, 2019 – October 18, 2019: Last scheduled EU summit before Brexit
  • October 31, 2019: The date the UK is set to leave the EU
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