Continuing with Brexit would be a tragedy, says Alliance MP

Pushing ahead with Brexit knowing that public opinion has swung towards Remain would be a tragedy, MPs have been told.

Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the “different context” facing the electorate three years on from the 2016 referendum justified another vote.

Mr Farry said that while there was “no guarantee” that Remain would win a so-called People’s Vote, opinion polls consistently demonstrated there was now a majority in favour of staying in the EU.

However, Ulster Unionist Assembly member Steve Aiken warned against a second vote, telling committee members it would be “divisive”.

The politicians were giving evidence to the committee as part of its examination of the contentious border backstop mechanism in the Brexit withdrawal treaty.

Mr Farry warned that a hard border would be “next to impossible” to manage.

He accused leaders of the Leave campaign of 2016 of engaging in “lies and misrepresentation” and making promises that were “utterly incapable of being fulfilled”.

He said an opportunity for another vote should be taken but accepted that “window may have closed” in light of developments at Westminster and the prospect of a short Brexit extension that would not provide sufficient time for a referendum.

“The people of the UK did vote in a certain way in June 2016. The context today in 2019 is very different,” he said.

“We now know a lot more and events have conspired in certain ways and perhaps forced a different range of choices on the country as a whole.

“We have a situation where, perhaps, some people have changed their minds, and I think it would be a tragedy if the UK was to be dragged out of the European Union, particularly if there’s now any chance that there’s a majority opinion across the UK as a whole to remain.”

He said 1.5 million more young people are eligible to vote since the 2016 poll, adding: “Their views are very important to take into account as well.”

He said there was a consensus among economists that leaving the EU would have a negative impact on the UK. “The optimal economic outcome is staying in the EU,” he added.

He rejected a claim from DUP committee member Ian Paisley that he was a “bad loser”.

Mr Aiken cautioned against a second vote.

Steve Aiken
Steve Aiken (Liam McBurney/PA)

“Let’s be fundamentally clear, a second referendum would be the most divisive thing possible, and I think to even bring the concept of a second referendum at the moment would fundamentally undermine what we are trying to do and get any semblance of normality going ahead in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“I think it’s not just an issue for Northern Ireland, it’s an issue for Scotland. And I think any people who are advocating for a second referendum at the moment need to very seriously consider their motivations.”

Mr Aiken also expressed surprise at how the border backstop, which could put Northern Ireland under different rules to the rest of the UK if triggered, was allowed into the withdrawal deal.

He questioned the DUP’s influence on the minority UK Government and asked whether the party had been “asleep at the wheel” when the mechanism was inserted into the text.

Mr Aiken also said the Irish Government had been “unhelpful” in the Brexit debate, accusing premier Leo Varadkar and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney of ramping up tensions unnecessarily.

Former Stormont justice minister Claire Sugden also appeared before the committee.

Claire Sugden
Claire Sugden (Brian Lawless/PA)

The independent unionist MLA said she could not see a return of devolved government at Stormont until Brexit had been resolved.

She suggested that if Brexit was extended, the powersharing impasse would also be prolonged.

“The opportunities for the (Stormont) executive to be formed are impacted by Brexit, so if Brexit is pushed back then I do think, potentially, the executive being formed could be pushed back as well,” she said.

Ms Sugden also criticised Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley for refusing to meet her since she took office, accusing her of “disrespecting” her constituents in East Londonderry.

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