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Neither Holyrood nor Stormont could block Brexit, insists Theresa Villiers

Published 26/06/2016

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has said only the Westminster government has the final say on Brexit
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has said only the Westminster government has the final say on Brexit

The Northern Ireland Secretary has rejected suggestions Stormont or Holyrood could veto Brexit, insisting the parliament in Westminster has the final say.

Theresa Villiers was responding to comments from Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on the prospect of the Scottish Parliament voting against a legislative consent motion to change the law in Scotland to reflect the referendum result.

In Northern Ireland, the SDLP has been among Remain campaigners claiming that the Stormont Assembly could also vote down such a motion.

In Scotland, 62% backed a Remain vote, and in Northern Ireland the figure was 56%.

At Stormont the situation is further complicated by the fact the two main parties in the power-sharing executive take different positions on the issue - Sinn Fein backing Remain and the Democratic Unionists supporting Brexit.

The outcome of the vote has prompted Sinn Fein to call for a border poll on Irish reunification. However, on Sunday, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said a border vote was not his immediate focus, insisting his priority was ensuring "special arrangements" were made to enable Northern Ireland to retain its EU links.

Leave advocate Ms Villiers, who in a previous row over welfare reform implementation in Northern Ireland warned that the Government could step in and enact the changes without Stormont's legislative consent, made clear that Westminster held the ultimate authority in regard to enacting Brexit.

"In the weeks and months ahead we will be working with both the Scottish government and the Northern Ireland Executive on all these matters," Ms Villiers told the BBC's Sunday Politics.

"But ultimately it is parliament's decision whether we repeal the 1972 European Communities Act or whether we don't."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood provided a different interpretation.

"We have been studying this for the last number of days - I don't think the Leave campaign have thought this through," he said.

"I don't think they expected to win and now they are in a situation where they don't know how to deliver this.

"We believe that the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Scottish parliament have the opportunity to say no."

He added: "We will not be about to give the Brexit campaigners the opportunity to ride roughshod over the democratic process in Northern Ireland."

Alliance Party deputy leader Naomi Long, who campaigned for Remain, said the devolved administrations could protest against Brexit but she conceded primacy rested with Westminster.

"Parliament remains with primacy, it can take back power from Holyrood, it can take back power from the Assembly," she said.

"So let's not kid ourselves - if parliament sets its face to do this, whilst we can put up a strong argument against it, ultimately parliament remains primacy."

A border poll can only be called by the region's Secretary of State in circumstances where there is clear evidence of a public opinion swing towards Irish unity.

Ms Villiers has insisted the criteria for triggering a border poll has not been met.

In regard to the prospect of a vote on reunification, Mr McGuinness said it was not his immediate priority.

"There needs to be a border poll at some stage in the future," he said.

"I think in the immediate future the focus needs to be on the whole issue of how we can maintain our relationship with Europe which has been so beneficial to us over the course of the last number of decades."

He added: "There needs to be special arrangements which take account of the democratically expressed wishes of the people of the north of Ireland and the people of Scotland who wish to remain and maintain our contacts and ability to work with very senior officials and governmental authorities within Europe."

DUP economy minister Simon Hamilton also said Northern Ireland's particular relationship with the EU had to be reflected in the Brexit negotiations.

"I think the negotiations that are going to start at some point in the future, particularly when there is a new prime minister in place, will have an involvement from Northern Ireland, just as they will from Scotland and Wales and England, the Prime Minister has made that perfectly clear - that is the right way to do that," he said.

He added: "We need to recognise the system of government we have; the aspects of our economy, the elements of our economy that have different needs to perhaps say England or Scotland and Wales; and the fact we are going to have a border which is going to be the border with the European Union."

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said Northern Ireland faced five to ten years of uncertainty.

He also questioned the stance of DUP First Minister Arlene Foster.

"We need to ask the First Minister when she goes to negotiations, is she going to reflect the fact 56% of the people wanted to remain," he said.

"Because the Prime Minister, representing all the people of the United Kingdom, lost the referendum and resigned, the First Minister, representing all the people of Northern Ireland, lost the referendum and celebrated."

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