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Mike Nesbitt: Securing Northern Ireland's future in era of uncertainty number one priority

By Mike Nesbitt

Published 28/06/2016

Nicola Sturgeon
Nicola Sturgeon
Enda Kenny

First things first: the referendum result is the result. The people of the United Kingdom were asked to tell us what they wanted, and they told us - get out of the European Union.

There is no point trying to argue the result does not count because the referendum is not binding on Parliament. In voting in large numbers in favour of holding the referendum, Parliament effectively devolved the decision-making process to the people.

You cannot invite the people to speak, then ignore their view. The result stands.

I still believe that the people of Northern Ireland would have been better off remaining within the EU, and I note 56% of the population agreed. But this was a UK-wide poll, and the people said we should exit, so let us move on and deal with the implications and consequences, once we identify what they are.

The vote has catapulted us into a new era of uncertainty. It will linger longer than the two years of formal negotiations on how we effect Brexit. It may be five to 10 years before we reach a new solid state.

It has been clear since the result was confirmed last Friday that there is no plan to make Brexit work. I have no doubt the leaders of Brexit - Nigel Farage, Boris Johnston, Michael Gove et al - did not see it coming, and are totally unprepared.

In fact, they are tripping over themselves to hit reverse gear over their outlandish claims, like the £350m a week that is not going to the NHS after all, or the fact immigration will continue.

It has been clear for considerably longer that the Northern Ireland Executive has no contingency plan. Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness admitted as much during their recent appearance in front of the Committee of the Executive Office.

Thank the Lord the Bank of England had a contingency plan, otherwise the pound could have fallen even further. The first certainty we need fixed is out of our control. Who will lead the only two political parties capable of leading the county from 10 Downing Street?

The Conservatives have pulled themselves apart, and David Cameron has spotted the Brexiteers have no plan, so is refusing to help them by initiating the Article 50 process that leads to our disengagement. Labour, as one social media wag put it, has endorsed the free movement of people, with the shadow cabinet moving out, en masse.

Investors and the business community hate that sort of uncertainty, and already the UK has dropped from the world's fifth richest economy to number six.

Locally, with so many voting to Remain, there is a reasonable expectation the First Minister will move to reassure the electorate she will represent all the people of Northern Ireland. She is in an unusual position.

David Cameron asked for a Remain vote, did not get it and indicated he would resign.

Nicola Sturgeon, as Scotland's First Minister, asked for a Remain vote and got it, giving her a clear mandate when the UK Government engages the devolved institutions.

Mrs Foster has the challenge of reflecting the tension between the fact the result was for Brexit but was not supported by the majority in Northern Ireland.

Nicola Sturgeon also believes she has the moral and political authority to start the process that would enable a second Scottish independence referendum.

As a unionist, I was keen not to have my fingerprints on that button. We should not be surprised she wishes to press it, but maybe there is more pause for thought in the angry reaction of a section of Northern Ireland's Irish nationalists to Brexit.

I have been struck by the number of nationalists who were previously content to hold Irish unity as a distant aspiration but for whom Brexit changes everything.

We tend to think in binary terms in this country, but it is clear identity is more complex than that and many were clearly happy to accept the constitutional status on the basis their identity reflected their overarching sense of being European.

We should not underestimate the potential implications. Beyond that, the new era of uncertainty has many unanswered questions.

As our land border becomes a line between the UK and the EU rather than just the UK and Eurozone, what does that mean?

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has already made clear the Common Travel Area is something he supports and will seek to maintain, but it is not in his gift.

Brexit MEP Dan Hannan has made clear immigration continues as was, but does the island of Ireland become a more attractive, if convoluted, route from continental Europe into England? And critically, in these times of austerity, what about the money? No reliable commentator argued anything other than Northern Ireland is a net beneficiary of EU funds.

Brexiteers argue the Treasury will have more money, once withdrawal is complete. How much that is, remains to be seen.

There will inevitably be a cost to negotiating continued access to the Single Market, but less clear is what the UK Government will do with it.

When I asked my party executive to endorse the view that, on balance, Northern Ireland was better off within the EU, I offered the room my pen, and said I would support Brexit, if anyone was prepared to sign a blank cheque guaranteeing no one in Northern Ireland would be worse off after a withdrawal - farmers, the voluntary and community sector, the universities, our infrastructure and the rest of those who benefit from EU funds. No one was prepared to sign.

In this era of uncertainty, that is the primary challenge for our First Ministers - ensure no one in Northern Ireland suffers from the Brexit.

As a responsible party of official opposition, I have asked our MEP, Jim Nicholson, to organise a visit to Brussels for our MLAs and MPs to better understand the issues, threats and opportunities from an EU perspective, and to enhance our ability to scrutinise the Executive, when they finally draw up a plan for dealing with the consequences of Thursday's historic vote.

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