Meet Northern Ireland’s new first minister: A wildcard in Britain’s EU referendum

By Kevin Meagher

Who is Arlene Foster and what does she believe in? Peter Robinson's successor as leader of the Democratic Unionists (DUP) and Northern Ireland's new first minister officially took up her position, with little coverage in London. She's got her work cut out defining herself just five months away from a crucial set of assembly elections.

Maintaining the DUP as the largest party in the devolved assembly should be a safe bet. After all, the DUP is now firmly established as the vehicle of choice for Northern Ireland's Protestant community and Foster has said that while her style of leadership may change, "the fundamental values of this party will not".

But there is a second electoral test that will define her early leadership. How will Foster approach the looming referendum on the EU?

With most UK-wide polls showing the result fairly evenly balanced between the 'leave' and 'remain' camps, the votes of Northern Ireland’s 1.2 million voters may prove pivotal. Her DUP is the most eurosceptic of Northern Ireland's various parties (founder, Ian Paisley, dismissed the EU as a "Catholic club") and Foster herself has previously expressed indifference about remaining.

This chimes with what we know from the 2015 General Elections Survey. It shows a deep divide between Northern Ireland's Catholic and Protestant communities on the question of whether or not to leave the EU, with 61% of Catholics in favour of remaining, but just 31% of Protestants agreeing with them.

Foster will need to clarify her intentions towards the referendum sooner rather than later. The smart money is on some variant of a weak 'better-the-devil-you-know' pitch to retain the status quo. However, this may not be enough to avoid plunging Northern Ireland into crisis.

Foster faces two big risks in this referendum. The first and most obvious is financial. A report last March for the devolved assembly's enterprise committee found that quitting the EU would cost Northern Ireland £1 billion a year – equivalent to a three per cent fall in economic output.

The report's author, Dr Leslie Budd from the Open University, argued that as well as damaging Northern Ireland's attractiveness as an entry route into the single market, transaction costs for trading into the EU would "rise significantly" and inhibit economic co-operation with the neighbouring Irish Republic. That's important, given that Northern Ireland plans to harmonise its corporation tax rates with the lower levels found in the Republic).

Leaving the EU would cut-off vital funding which has done so much to copper-fasten peace in recent years. Between 2007-13, Northern Ireland received £2.4 billion from the EU and continued funding deals up to 2020 are "central to Northern Ireland[s] economic and innovation strategies".

If not quite a social democratic party these days, the DUP is certainly a pork-barrel one. It measures its success by what it can deliver in terms of hard cash and is adept at pulling Whitehall's and Brussels' purse-strings. This hard-earned reputation as a party that delivers is at risk if EU funding is suddenly – and permanently – cut-off.

The second risk is constitutional. What happens if a UK-wide majority votes to leave the EU, but most Northern Irish voters opt to remain, or, indeed, vice versa? Just as Nicola Sturgeon has said that an English-majority vote to quit should not dictate what happens if most Scots choose to stay, so, too, the DUP's coalition partners, Sinn Fein, are now arguing that Northern Ireland should not be beholden to any English-dominated decision either. How would unionists respond to this scenario? Would they cleave to the mother country or support the local will of the people?

In her leadership acceptance speech last month, Foster rooted her politics in the pragmatic and practical, focusing on "ideas and not ideologies". The people of Northern Ireland "don't want to hear their politicians squabbling about issues that seem unconnected to their daily lives," she said.

Yet if she is to avoid the risk of Northern Ireland becoming entangled in an almighty constitutional row, not to mention losing all that EU cash, the non-ideological Foster might need to convince Northern Ireland's doubting Protestant community that their best bet is to remain in the EU.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former Special Adviser at the Northern Ireland Office