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Sinn Fein slammed for 'gifting Theresa May Brexit win'

By Jonathan Bell

Sinn Fein has once again faced criticism over its abstentionist policy - after the government narrowly avoided defeat in key Brexit votes on Monday.

An amendment to put into law measures to prevent any customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK was passed without a vote.

However, two key amendments to the Customs Bill were voted through on Monday night by just three votes. Only one Northern Ireland MP - Lady Sylvia Hermon - voted against the amendments, while all 10 DUP MPs supported the government.

One of the amendments was to stop the UK collecting taxes on behalf of the EU, unless the EU does the same. Collecting taxes had been part of Theresa May's plan to try and prevent any friction at the border. The other amendment ensures the UK is out of the EU's VAT regime.  That potentially rules out the backstop option should no deal be reached as well as any transition period.

For the entire bill, over 30 MPs approved its progression to the House of Lords.

Unionists hailed the victory as maintaining the integrity of the UK. However, opponents say it paves the way for a no-deal hard Brexit and a hard border on the island of Ireland.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson said the outcome of the Westminster votes had strengthened the UK's hand in the Brexit negotiations.

"The DUP were proud to be able to deliver their support in two crucial votes in the House of Commons last night," he said. "Votes which will ensure the United Kingdom will have a stronger hand in negotiations with the EU."

Mr Wilson said the outcome had secured Northern Ireland's part in the United Kingdom.

In a reference to Remain politicians in Northern Ireland, he added: "The irrational rage against safeguards which will now be included in legislation is due to their blind opposition to anything proposed by those who wish to leave the EU."

The debating continues on Tuesday as the Trade Bill comes before the House of Commons. Remain MPs have tabled an amendment which could see the UK remain part of a customs union with the EU.

With the narrow margin of votes involved on Monday many have pointed to Sinn Fein's seven absent MPs as possibly having made a difference on the night. One critic suggested attending 'Brexit only votes' would be in Ireland's interest,  another said their attendance would be "decisive".

"To those who say Westminster doesn’t matter - wake up," said SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.

"Our future is being torn apart by the British Government. Abstentionism is not acceptable. Sinn Fein gift Theresa May a win over Brexit. SDLP MPs would have been there to stop Tories."

Fianna Fail leader Michael Martin said the anti-Brexit majority in Northern Ireland was not represented in Westminster claiming hardline Brexiteers won the vote because of Sinn Fein's absence.

The Irish Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan accused Sinn Fein of "plunging the British PM into the clutches of hard Brexiteers again".

Irish senator Neale Richmond, the Fine Gael spokesman on European Affairs added: "Sinn Fein’s seven MPs could be making a tangible difference to the extent of the impact of Brexit but instead they’re hiding behind abstentionism; while of course drawing down salaries, staff, offices, expenses and much more".

Former Sinn Fein MLA, the Lurgan Councillor Catherine Nelson responded on Twitter: "We won’t be yo-yoing or apologising for an abstentionist policy endorsed by Nat&Rep & which wiped out the SDLP at [Westminster]. Our interests will never be served in a Brit Parliament!"

Sinn Fein campaign for Westminster seats on the basis they will not attend and at the last General Election were overwhelmingly endorsed in taking that stance having wiped out the SDLP at Westminster. The party has repeatedly stressed it will not reverse that policy.

Sinn Fein TD David Cullinane said: "Westminster and the Tory civil war is what has caused this problem, so if anyone believes that is where the solution will be found, they are living in a fool’s paradise.

“There was no vote on the border in the Irish Sea amendment and the overall bill passed by 33 votes so the notion that Sinn Fein MPs could have had an impact is a red herring.

“Where we do have a major impact is within the Brexit negotiations to such an extent that even the British Government has conceded we are ‘strongly influencing’ those talks.

“That is how we will continue to represent the 238,000 voters who endorsed our abstentionist platform to oppose Brexit, a border, Tory austerity and to progress equality, rights and Irish unity.

“Those negotiations remain the place where the terms of Brexit will be decided, not the benches of Westminster where Theresa May has made it clear that she intends to ignore the wishes of the people on the North on this and many other issues.”

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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