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Foster has no mandate in exit talks, claims Eastwood

By Noel McAdam

Published 06/07/2016

First Minister Arlene Foster
First Minister Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster has no authority to take part in Brexit negotiations because a majority in Northern Ireland wish to remain part of the EU, the SDLP has claimed.

Ahead of talks with Irish and European politicians today, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood argued that Taoiseach Enda Kenny has a responsibility to “weigh in” to the negotiations on behalf of people in Northern Ireland.

With speculation continuing over when the Government might trigger the negotiations — by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty — Mr Eastwood said every parliamentary and diplomatic tool must be used “to maintain the North’s membership of the EU” in spite of the UK-wide decision to withdraw.

“Our First Minister and Deputy First Minister have no democratic authority to co-operate with any Article 50 negotiations that remove our status within the European Union,” the Foyle MLA argued.

“To do so would fundamentally undermine, not only the referendum result, but every agreement stretching back to 1998 (the Good Friday Agreement).”

But Mr Eastwood said: “As a continuing member state, Ireland will have huge influence in this upcoming negotiation.

“Enda Kenny has a huge responsibility to weigh in on behalf of the people in the North.”

An online petition demanding that Arlene Foster refuses to consent to Northern Ireland leaving the EU has reached 30,000 signatures, although the First Minister has no power to do so.

Mrs Foster said, however: “I do not want to ignore anyone in Northern Ireland who voted to remain part of the European Union, but such petitions will not have any impact. Ultimately, as First Minister of Northern Ireland, I, nor any other member of the Northern Ireland Assembly would have the power to deliver such an outcome.

“Unfortunately some ill-informed politicians raised the spectre that the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly could somehow block the decision. All such a comment does is to raise the hopes of some people who may be very disappointed by the result. Legally there simply is no power for any devolved legislature to do this.”

Her comments came as the UUP demanded she and Martin McGuinness make a statement to reassure the business community. Strangford MLA Philip Smith argued: “Successful companies like Willowbrook Foods in my own Strangford constituency are crying out for communication and reassurance from the Executive.”

Following a visit to the factory in Killinchy, where he discovered 11 of its 19 managers are originally from other EU countries, he said: “What struck me was that on average they had worked at Willowbrook for eight years with many working their way up from the factory floor. 

“Many have married, bought houses and are raising their families in Northern Ireland.

“They are more than economic migrants, they are new Northern Irish and they are now unsure of their futures. Whatever the final outcome of the EU negotiations our people and companies need reassurance, communication and leadership now. Sadly, the NI Executive has failed to provide this to date.”

The SDLP has organised an event today called ‘We Are the 56%’ — a reference to the majority in Northern Ireland that voted in favour of remaining in the EU.

It is to be attended by MP Stephen Gethins of the Scottish National Party, Dankse Bank chief economist Angela McGowan and John McGrane of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce.

Mr Eastwood is then due to meet Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin and Irish Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin before joining European leaders at the Party of European Socialists’ Presidency dinner in Paris.

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