MEPs have applauded Ulster Unionist Jim Nicholson as he said that there is no legal entity called “the north of Ireland” – before they overwhelmingly rejected a Sinn Fein-backed call for Northern Ireland to have EU ‘special status’.
In a blow to Sinn Fein’s “diplomatic offensive for designated special status”, the European Parliament voted down an amendment which all but called for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU.
The amendment was brought forward by the communist bloc of which Sinn Fein is a member – the European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) – but was rejected yesterday by 374 votes to 66.
Sinn Fein’s Northern Ireland MEP, Martina Anderson, did not vote but the party’s three southern MEPs voted for the motion.
The DUP’s Diane Dodds and the UUP’s Jim Nicholson both voted against the proposal.
By last night there had been no official comment from Sinn Fein about Mrs Anderson’s absence from the vote but it is understood that she did not vote because she had returned home for personal family reasons.
The amendment, which followed debate on the European Commission’s priorities for 2018, said: ‘Insists that the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements be fully upheld in the withdrawal agreement; calls for the North of Ireland to be designated with a special status within the EU which ensures it maintains access to EU membership, the Customs Union, the Single Market and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice; calls, furthermore, for the freedom of movement of goods, people and services on the island of Ireland”.
Mr Nicholson, the veteran Ulster Unionist, took particular exception to the refusal to correctly describe Northern Ireland by its legal title.
Addressing MEPs, he said: “I am a member from the north of Ireland and there is no such entity as ‘the north of Ireland’. It is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and if you want to refer to Northern Ireland you refer to it as ‘Northern Ireland’.
MEPs applauded as Mr Nicholson spoke.
In a statement after the vote, Mr Nicholson said it was ironic that Sinn Fein was seeking “special status” for a region they refuse to call by its proper, legal name.
He said: “Once again, Sinn Fein and their communist colleagues in the European Parliament have tried to use official procedures to promote a narrative suggesting Northern Ireland is not a legitimate jurisdiction.
“There is no such legal or political entity called ‘the north of Ireland’. This is not an ambiguous or contentious issue – it is a simple matter of fact.
“They say they want ‘special status’, but they cannot even say the name of the region they want this special status for. MEPs from across the house are now well aware of this, and the amendment was roundly rejected.”
Mrs Dodds said: “It is clear that support for [‘special status’] has gained little traction.
“The negotiating guidelines published by the European Parliament and Council earlier this year make no reference to a special designated status and both governments in London and Dublin have failed to back the proposal.
“Ultimately this week’s vote by MEPs is further demonstration that Sinn Fein’s Brexit charm offensive has failed miserably.”
However, Mrs Dodds said that there was “widespread recognition” in Brussels of the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland and an awareness of the “unique position” with the border.
Sinn Fein MEP Matt Carthy highlighted that the motion was not put forward in the names of Sinn Fein MEPs but admitted that the outcome was “disappointing”.
He added: “We are engaging with hundreds of political representatives and officials from across Europe in order to gather further support for special status for the north within the EU and will continue to do so.”
Chris Mackin, a Northern Ireland man who has worked at the European Parliament for six years, said that the vote needed to be seen in context.
Mr Mackin, who is originally from Warrenpoint and who now works in the office of Czech MEP Petr Jezek, told the News Letter: “It’s important to note that this resolution was not legislative.
“It did not fix a parliament position on anything. Secondly, the resolution was rejected by the parliament, so there is no resolution.
“On the specifics of the amendment, it was not appropriate for this resolution. It delved into Brexit issues, which are currently being negotiated.
“Therefore in general the parliament is trying to avoid taking specific positions on Brexit-related issues which go beyond the mandate the EU has already set out. In addition, as Jim Nicholson mentioned in the plenary chamber, the wording ‘north of Ireland’ is not appropriate as it implies that the parliament takes one side or the other in the ongoing debates in Northern Ireland about identity and culture.”
Mr Mackin also said that none of the three Northern Ireland MEPs are in a grouping which is influential, and added that the vote should not be seen as the parliament taking a position against special status for Northern Ireland: “It simply implies that the parliament does not want to take a position on this at this stage”.