Margaret Ritchie: The new PM must accept NI’s pro-Remain majority

Margaret Ritchie MP
Margaret Ritchie MP

It is hard to believe that the referendum was only four weeks ago.

The changes we have witnessed in politics have left heads spinning on both sides of the House of Commons, as, much sooner than expected, Britain and Northern Ireland has found itself with a new prime minister.

On a personal level, I congratulate Theresa May on her new role.

But the time for congratulating May ended as the door of Number 10 closed behind her on Wednesday evening.

The prime minister will now begin fundamentally renegotiating our relationship with the rest of Europe, and I intend to make sure Northern Ireland and South Down is not ignored or left behind.

As for the new Secretary of State, with Northern Ireland facing its biggest political challenges in over a decade and I hope James Brokenshire will bring to the job a firmer grasp of the Good Friday Agreement’s principle of consent than seemed to be held by the out-going Theresa Villiers.

Too many times Villiers stood at the despatch box and described the North’s support for the Agreement as support for remaining in the Union, and sought to use this to justify denying the North a delineated role in negotiations with Brussels.

Brokenshire must realise this is a misreading of history.

As the SDLP has always made clear, the Good Friday Agreement is founded on the principle that the people of Northern Ireland should have the final say over their own constitutional future.

With this principle about to be tested more than at any time since the return of devolution, it is essential we have a Secretary of State that understands what it truly means.

Our new Secretary of State must realise that taking Northern Ireland out of the EU against the wishes of the majority of Northern Irish voters runs contrary to the Agreement’s principle of democratic consent.

Our reliance on cross-border trade and EU investment always made continued EU membership the clear economic choice.

Yet, more importantly, staying in is now the mandated choice of the people of Northern Ireland. Both the new Secretary of State and the new prime minister must respect our decision.

Back home, I fear that, even with the referendum over, Sinn Fein and the DUP will try and turn our future status in the EU into another political football in the on-going debate over the North’s broader constitutional question.

However our membership of the EU is too important to jobs and our society to let that happen and no one in Northern Ireland would benefit from a descent into such a debate.

On the one hand, no Irish nationalist could ever wish to go back to the days of a hard border.

Moreover, for northern unionists concerned a new special status in the EU would weaken their own links with Britain, I would suggest looking beyond the North to Scotland, London and even Gibraltar, where people who feel strongly British are nonetheless calling for arrangements with the EU that fit their own unique circumstances.

As the DUP’s silence since the referendum has shown, there is no serious alternative for the North’s future prosperity outside of the EU.

Our own unique circumstances demand a special arrangement within the EU.

The voters of Northern Ireland understand that, and the SDLP understands that too.

That is why the SDLP will be holding May’s new government to account on the principle of consent, and pursuing every possible avenue to ensure the North stays in the EU.

• Margaret Ritchie is SDLP MP for South Down