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SDLP urges Sinn Fein to take Commons seats for Brexit vote

SDLP says they could affect the outcome

By Noel McAdam

Sinn Fein has come under pressure to abandon its boycott of Westminster to ensure its MPs can help shape a Brexit deal.

The SDLP said their main nationalist rivals must not “shirk their responsibilities” after a Supreme Court verdict yesterday left the Assembly — along with its counterparts in Scotland and Wales — without a say on triggering the start of negotiations to withdraw from the EU.

The nine DUP and two Ulster Unionist MPs will vote to trigger the mechanism — Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty — to kick-start two years of detailed talks, along with North Down independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon.

That will leave only the three SDLP MPs — Alasdair McDonnell, Margaret Ritchie and Mark Durkan — voting against.

But in a tight House of Commons vote the four SF MPs — Mickey Brady, Pat Doherty, Francie Molloy and Paul Maskey — could make a difference.

A relatively comfortable majority is expected on the vote to begin negotiations — with the main Labour opposition saying they will support it — but future votes on the detail of Brexit could be close. The court decision yesterday is likely to mean the Government will have to produce more detailed plans for MPs and the Brexit bill will be hit by amendments before it can move through Parliament. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “We are now the only party standing by the will of the majority of people in Northern Ireland. We will be the only voice of the 56% who voted remain.”

The Foyle MLA insisted gaining a consent role for the Assembly would now be the party’s top priority in negotiations which will follow the March 2 election.

He said the Supreme Court judgment was “particularly serious” since it was being suggested the unelected House of Lords will be permitted a vote while the devolved administrations will not, even though the direction of travel set out by Prime Minister Theresa May will mean a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

“Everyone on this island has a responsibility to ensure that this does not happen. It would prove devastating both politically and economically,” Mr Eastwood said.

“That includes the Sinn Fein MPs who do not take their seats at Westminster. If Sinn Fein are serious about new leadership they cannot shirk their responsibility to the people of Ireland and should therefore take their seats to vote against Article 50.”

Sinn Fein, however, insisted it will not give up its core abstentionist policy and instead argued the London verdict increases pressure on the Irish government to ensure the best Brexit deal with ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland.

Party leader Gerry Adams said the Irish government “must uphold the Remain vote in the North and to argue for the North to be accorded a special designated status within the EU”.

“There are precedents for this. In its negotiations with the other EU states it must act in the national interest and it has to fulfil its moral and legal duty as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.

And Irish parliamentarian Pearse Doherty said there’s “no appetite” in the party to end its policy of absentionism.

“It’s a long established policy. We are an abstentionist party,” he said. Only a Sinn Féin Ard Fheis could change this, he said, adding: “There would be no appetite whatsoever to do that”. “The reality is four votes in Westminster isn’t going to make a difference”.

Northern Ireland voted by 56% to 44% to Remain in the EU.

However, the proportion of those who voted Remain in Sinn Fein MPs’ constituencies was much bigger. In Mr Brady’s Newry and Armagh constituency, 62.9% voted Remain. In Mr Molloy’s Mid-Ulster constituency 60.4% voted to stay. In Mr Doherty’s West Tyrone it was 66.8% and for Mr Maskey in west Belfast it was 74.1%.

The DUP’s Sammy Wilson said it was disappointing the verdict would allow “those anti-democratic losers within the Remain camp to conduct a parliamentary guerrilla warfare but at least there will be no veto to the devolved administrations”.

And he added: “Sinn Fein and those Opposition parties which produced the crisis to bring down the Assembly have ensured that the mechanism set up to deal with NI specific issues have been effectively scuppered.”

The Ulster Unionists, however, said: “It is clear that the failed DUP/Sinn Fein Executive, which has crumbled after eight months, is incapable of addressing Northern Ireland’s unique needs in Brexit negotiations.”

Victims’ campaigner Raymond McCord, who also challenged Brexit in the Supreme Court, called on the DUP to support the wishes of the majority in Northern Ireland to remain in the EU.

He was encouraged by yesterday’s ruling that Parliament must have a vote on the Brexit process, but added: “I am saying to the DUP now, are you going to go in there and vote for the wishes of the people or will you vote party first and people second?”

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