A final attempt by several Stormont parties to block Brexit is set to fail even before getting past its first hurdle, the News Letter can reveal.
Earlier this month, Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Green Party and Alliance MLA David Ford went to Belfast High Court in an attempt to force Parliament to vote on Article 50, the first formal step to taking the UK out of the EU.
In a case which the News Letter revealed has been funded by US billionaire Chuck Feeney, the parties argued that if Parliament does vote on the matter the Stormont Assembly should be asked to pass a legislative consent motion.
They had hoped that such a motion would not be able to get through Stormont and, although Parliament is sovereign and can legislate over Stormont’s head, such a move would cause the Government to reconsider.
Judgment is awaited in the case, which was heard by Mr Justice Maguire.
However, in an interview with the News Letter, Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt – who along with the parties taking the case campaigned against Brexit – has made clear that even if the MLAs win their case and motion comes before Stormont, the UUP will not side with them on the issue.
And last night independent MLA Claire Sugden said that she also would not support an attempt to block Brexit via Stormont.
Ms Sugden, who is the Justice Minister, told the News Letter that she was a Remain voter but was of the view that the plebiscite had been conducted on a UK-wide basis and that in order to “respect democracy” there was now a need to “get on with it and put our best foot forward”.
Mr Nesbitt’s comments on the UUP position are significant, because the UUP had argued for a Remain vote and its 16 MLAs could have swung such a vote in favour of an anti-Brexit position in the Stormont chamber.
The DUP and TUV would also be guaranteed to oppose such a motion and the two People Before Profit MLAs campaigned for Brexit, so would not support it.
That means that if every MLA, with the exception of the Speaker, turned up and voted, and assuming that every Sinn Fein, SDLP, Green and Alliance MLA voted to stop Brexit their attempt would be defeated by 57 votes to 50
Mr Nesbitt said that he was not approached to back the court case. He said that he had always been clear that “the result is the result”, with no UUP appetite for seeking to overturn it through the courts or other means.
Although numerous UUP figures endorsed Brexit and academic research suggests that most UUP supporters voted to quit the EU, Mr Nesbitt insisted that he was not out of touch with the party on the issue.
He pointed to the “unanimous” view of the party’s MLAs and what he says was “effectively 99 of the 100” at the UUP’s ruling executive who “supported the notion that on balance we were better off staying in, although individuals were free to vote as they wished”.
But, unlike the SDLP and Sinn Fein, he is keen to move the debate on, saying that “frankly, the days of Brexiteers and Remainers are over. The vote is the vote. We bought into a UK-wide in-out referendum. The referendum result is the result and what we should be doing... is saying ‘OK, well what are the opportunities here and how do we maximise them?’”
He said that Northern Ireland needs to evaluate where its priorities marry with those of the UK – and where, such as perhaps in agriculture, they clash. To do so, he argues, the Executive needs to be able to agree a common position.
“You saw the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU coming into Belfast and holding a series of separate meetings with Executive ministers. A divided house has no leverage in negotiations – how often have you heard a politician say ‘come back to me when you’ve decided what you want; when you’ve got your act together’?
“That is exactly how David Davis would have gone back to London, thinking ‘I don’t need to worry about those people because they can’t even put up a united front’. There is no leverage in negotiations.”
Although Mr Nesbitt was on the Remain side in the referendum, he warned that the anti-EU vote had, for some people, been a case of them “stamping their feet against government” and that an attempt to overturn a mass plebiscite through the back door would only exacerbate that disconnect between many members of the public and their rulers.
He said that prior to the plebiscite “we all said we will have a vote and it will be very simple vote – in or out – and we’ll have a simple majority; there was a simple majority and it said ‘out’ so let’s get on with it”.