Last night’s Question Time was broadcast from Belfast. On the panel were Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, Labour peer Peter Hain, Deputy Leader of the DUP Nigel Dodds MP, Sinn Féin's Declan Kearney, and comedian Gráinne Maguire.
We factchecked their claims on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, and on various aspects of the UK's membership of the EU.
“There are actually courts who have told you time and time again that this is against human rights law… you continually refuse to bring it into law to bring us into line with the rest of the UK”—Audience member
“There’s been no court ruling on this issue, that’s wrong”—Nigel Dodds MP
There have been legal challenges to the bar on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, but no court that we’re aware of has said that it’s a breach of human rights.
Two same-sex couples have challenged the ban in the High Court in Belfast, saying that it’s a breach of their human rights. But as of today the judge hasn’t yet ruled on the case.
The European Court of Human Rights has said that human rights law doesn’t require countries like the UK to give same-sex couples the right to marry. Its judges are conscious that there’s no Europe-wide consensus on allowing same-sex marriages.
The lady in the audience may have been thinking about abortion, another social issue where Northern Ireland is more restrictive than elsewhere in the UK.
The High Court did say recently that denying an abortion in the case of fatal foetal abnormality, or pregnancy as a result of sexual crime, is a breach of women’s human rights. In both cases, it’s up to politicians to change the law.
“Opinion polls in Northern Ireland consistently show that a majority of the public support gay marriage”—Audience member
This is generally correct, according to the polls we’ve found.
An Ipsos Mori poll last year found 68% of Northern Irish people in support, with 27% against and 6% not knowing.
Polling for the Belfast Telegraph paints a slightly different picture. An opinion poll from 2014 found 40% in favour, 39% opposed and 21% not having an opinion on whether same-sex marriage should be extended to Northern Ireland. The newspaper reports that a 2013 version asking about “equal marriage” had only 27% in favour and 30% opposed.
The European Union
“First of all there’s an elected European Parliament, Northern Ireland sends European MPs, it’s very powerful.”—Lord Hain
The directly elected European Parliament has an important role in making the EU’s laws, but it’s only one of several powerful political bodies.
Northern Ireland elects 3 out of the UK’s 73 representatives at the Parliament.
This system has been the norm since the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009.
But in general only the Commission—essentially the EU civil service—can propose laws for the Parliament and Council to vote on. It’s also responsible for making sure that EU law is enforced, for managing the budget, and generally getting things done.
Commissioners aren’t elected by the public. The EU treaties say that as a group they are “responsible to” the European Parliament, which can in theory vote them out of office en masse. The Parliament also questions nominees for the Commission.
As well as all this, there’s the European Council, which is different to the Council of Ministers. It’s a regular meeting of the leaders of member countries—David Cameron goes to represent the UK.
So there are quite a few EU bodies that are considered powerful, in different ways.
“Half our trade is with the European Union, only 10% of their trade is with us.”—Lord Hain
In 2014 about 44% of goods and services exported from the UK went to EU countries. So not quite half.
If you just look at goods, not services, that rises to 50%. Services are a significant part of the UK’s international trade, making about 40% of exports.
In 2014 the UK received about 7% of all goods (not services) exported from other EU member states, according to figures from the European Commission.
“In terms of grants and all the rest of it the UK has paid to Europe, since 1973, £450 billion. Each year we pay in £19 billion and get back £10 billion, a deficit of £9 billion.”—Nigel Dodds MP
The UK hasn’t paid this much in the years since 1973 and doesn’t pay as much as £19 billion a year. Our rebate from the EU instantly reduces the amount we’d otherwise be liable to pay every year. But it’s correct that we do pay around £9 billion more a year into the EU budget than we get back.
In 2014 the UK paid £14.4 billion to the EU budget and got £4.6 billion back in receipts. That gets us to a net contribution of about £9.8 billion. There are now updated figures for 2015, when our net contributions fell to £8.5 billion.
Mr Dodds’ figures also show up in the accounts for 2014, but he’s added the rebate to what we get back in receipts, rather than what it cuts off our contributions. This doesn’t reflect how the accounts work in practice.
So Mr Dodds is almost right on the “deficit”: about £10 billion in 2014 and £8.5 billion in 2015—but his higher figures on gross contributions are sums that never actually get paid, according to the Treasury.
It’s likely Mr Dodds’ £450 billion figure is based on the same gross figures—up to 2014—which again don’t account for our rebate. Our calculations based onhistorical figures puts Mr Dodds’ number at something like £490 billion taking inflation into account.
Accounting for the rebate would put these gross contributions at something like £365 billion, and we’d have received about £185 billion in receipts over the same period. That would mean net contributions summed up at about £180 billion.
“[In] Northern Ireland, to pick up on Declan’s point, for every £1 we get out of Europe we pay in £1.50.”—Nigel Dodds MP
We’ve asked Mr Dodds where he got these figures from.
There aren’t any official statistics that we’re aware of giving a breakdown of the overall investment that Northern Ireland receives from the EU. Northern Ireland benefits from a range of EU funding programmes and funding is often calculated at UK level. Northern Ireland also doesn’t give money to the EU itself—the UK government makes the contribution.
The figures might be based on research by Open Europe in 2012 which said that Northern Ireland pays £1.58 for every £1 it gets back. This specifically relates to funding that Northern Ireland gets for things like economic development through what’s called EU “structural funds”.
It doesn’t count all EU money going in and out of Northern Ireland. For example, it excludes things like the Erasmus student programme which has previously been counted in equivalent estimates for Wales.
Round up posts like this—and those we publish for PMQs and major speeches by politicians—don’t go into as much depth as our usual articles or cover every claim made in the show. Often they are done under a much shorter deadline, so we prioritise a clear conclusion above all else. As always we welcome feedback: please email the team on firstname.lastname@example.org
We need facts more than ever.
Right now, it’s difficult to know what or who to trust. Misinformation is spreading. Politics and the media are being pushed to the limit by advancements in technology and uncertainty about the future. We need facts more than ever.
This is where you come in. Your donation is vital for our small, independent team to keep going, at the time when it’s needed most. With your help, we can keep factchecking and demanding better from our politicians and public figures.We can give more people the tools to decide for themselves what to believe. We can intervene more effectively where false claims cause most harm.
Become a donor today and stand up for better public debate, on all sides, across the UK.