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Stormont should take leaf from SNP chief Nicola Sturgeon's book when it challenges May over Brexit plan

A united stand is needed urgently to defend Northern Ireland's unique interests, writes Alban Maginness

Published 19/10/2016

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

One of David Cameron's greatest nightmares was that he would be the Prime Minister who presided over the departure of Scotland from the UK. He spent many anxious hours battling the surge for independence coming across the border in Scotland.

He was a most relieved man when the Scottish referendum on independence in 2014 resulted in the rejection of independence by Scottish voters. The UK would, after all, remain united and David Cameron could not be blamed for its break-up. Cameron's political legacy would not be spoilt by Scotland's departure.

However, now the whole issue of Scottish independence has been prematurely resuscitated as a direct result of Cameron's Brexit referendum. When Cameron devised his cunning plan to hold a referendum on membership of the EU (to keep his own Eurosceptic members happy and to keep the menace of Ukip at bay), little did he realise the Pandora's box that he was opening up.

In fairness, he was convinced that the British people, after more than 40 years of EU membership, would vote in favour of remaining a member of the bloc. Of course, he was mistaken in that belief - along with the conventional wisdom of the political establishment.

The 52% vote to leave came as a huge shock to both sides of the argument. Indeed, early on in the night of the count, Nigel Farage, the then Ukip leader, conceded defeat. But, as the count went on, it became clear that the vote to remain had been marginally beaten, though not in Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Truly, this was the biggest and most far-reaching political shock in the history of post-war Britain. Even today, four months after the vote, no one really knows the ultimate consequences of the electorate's momentous decision.

Immediately after the referendum result, Nicola Sturgeon, the impressive Scottish First Minister, emphasised that Scotland had voted to remain in the EU and saw its future as being part of Europe.

She claimed, with undoubted authority, that the Scottish people had spoken decisively, with a strong and unequivocal vote to remain in Europe. She also warned that it was democratically unacceptable that Scotland could be taken out of the EU without its agreement.

But Sturgeon went even further and threatened that she would use the Scottish parliament to veto the UK leaving the EU.

She pointed out that any repeal legislation passed by the Westminster parliament to exit Europe would need a legislative consent motion from the Scottish parliament, as it directly impacted upon the devolved responsibilities of the Scottish parliament.

This blocking mechanism could have enormous political and constitutional implications that might have to be resolved by the Supreme Court.

London, of course, could use the nuclear option of either dissolving or suspending the Scottish parliament to get round this legislative obstruction, but the consequences of that would be enormously damaging and self-defeating.

What is clear is that Sturgeon will not tolerate Westminster's current strategy, which she rightly describes as "constitutional vandalism".

But this same obstruction tactic could be employed by the Assembly if a combination of the Opposition parties and Sinn Fein voted to reject a similar legislative consent motion from Westminster. This would reflect the will of the Northern Ireland electorate, who voted convincingly to remain.

The DUP is still stupidly oblivious to the gravity of the Brexit decision and would not support such a move. But remember, Westminster has had to trim its sails before by delaying legislative consent motions going to the Assembly. It may be in this way that the Westminster Government will realise that there has to be a special relationship for Northern Ireland within the EU.

Last week, at the SNP conference, Nicola Sturgeon reiterated the real prospect of a second Scottish independence referendum before Britain leaves the EU in 2019, arising out of the British Government's pursuit of a hard Brexit.

This move by the shrewd Scottish leader has further complicated the already confused state of British politics.

What would happen if a Scottish referendum votes in favour of leaving the UK in order to remain within the EU? She is firmly saying to the dithering Prime Minister Theresa May that Scotland's interests in remaining within the EU - especially the single market - cannot be ignored or subsumed into a hard Brexit position. Scotland must have a real and vital say in any negotiations with Brussels.

Likewise, Northern Ireland's vital interests need to be protected in a similar manner, but the likelihood of agreement on that is remote, given the DUP's amazingly cavalier attitude to Brexit.

What is urgently required is a united stance by the Executive and the Assembly in putting pressure on May's weak and increasingly directionless Government to fully and firmly accommodate the economic and political interests of Northern Ireland on the negotiating agenda with Brussels.

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