Ireland joined the European Union (EU) in January 1973, the Republic as a full member state and Northern Ireland as a region of the UK. For Northern Ireland, the fact that the region does not have full member status and that most negotiations with the EU are carried out on its behalf by the UK government, which has always been ‘lukewarm’ about Europe, has meant that Northern Irish politicians are not as firmly embedded into the EU system as their southern counterparts. For the Republic, integration with the EU has occurred to such an extent that on all major European issues there is a virtual political consensus across all political parties with the exception of Sinn Féin and the Greens, who are more critical of the EU. In Northern Ireland, the scepticism towards the EU elsewhere in the UK has been evident. In the 1975 referendum on whether the UK should remain within the European Community, only 52 per cent of Northern Ireland’s voters voted in favour of continuing membership, substantially below the overall UK vote in support of 67 per cent. Many Unionists questioned the value of EU membership, whilst Sinn Féin opposed EU membership until the late 1990s. Only the SDLP among the major northern parties has consistently been strongly supportive of the EU, even briefly advocating a role (during the early 1990s) for the EU Commission in the administration of Northern Ireland. All the other parties have overcome initial opposition to the EU and have become much greater backers, recognizing the financial benefits on offer.
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