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Belfast council supports calls for NI to regain vote in EU elections

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Belfast City Council

Belfast City Council

Belfast City Council

Belfast City Council is supporting a call for Northern Ireland residents to regain their vote in future European Union Parliamentary Elections, post-Brexit.

A knife-edge vote at the council’s Climate and Resilience Committee saw a SDLP proposal pass calling on the British and Irish governments, as well as the European Commission, to allow Northern Ireland a seat at the European parliament despite the UK no longer being part of the EU.

The vote was carried by the Sinn Fein chair of the committee, Councillor John Gormley, after six Sinn Fein and SDLP councillors voted for the proposal, to six DUP and UUP councillors, who voted against. No Alliance, Green or People Before Profit councillors attended the debate.

If the matter is returned to a vote again at next month’s full council meeting, the Alliance Party position will almost certainly sway the council decision.

The vote came after a presentation by Ciaran White, Senior Lecturer in Law at University of Ulster, and Doctor Francis Costello, who forwarded a paper entitled “Allowing Northern Ireland residents to vote in future EU Parliamentary Elections.”

The paper aims to assuage criticisms, particularly from some unionists, that the current trade deal means Northern Ireland has to accept EU rules, while not being able to influence or shape them with a democratic mandate.

Ciaran White told the chamber: “The essence of our proposals are that Northern Ireland is given some form of representation in the European Union parliament, notwithstanding that the UK has exited the EU, by dint of the special circumstances that Northern Ireland finds itself in.

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“It has being pointed out by a number of diverse political groupings that there is a democratic deficit in relation to that protocol, which is to say in very simple terms, that Northern Ireland will be required to adhere to the laws of the European Union, notwithstanding the fact it no longer has representation in the parliament which has a hand in enacting that legislation in some part.

“The point we have made to a number of different entities, including the Irish government, and also the European Union, over the past few years, is that there are a couple of models which could help Northern Ireland achieve the particular goal of closing that democratic deficit and ensuring some form of representation at European parliamentary level.”

The first model he refers to is that of Turkish Cypriots, who since 2014 have been allowed to vote in EU Parliamentary elections, after a new law adopted by the government of the Republic of Cyprus which governs the southern part of the island, and is mainly Greek.

It allows Turkish Cypriots resident in the north of the island, who have Republic of Cyprus identity documents, to cross into southern Cyprus, to vote in the EU Parliament election.

Other models involve French overseas territories being represented in the EU Parliament, and French nationals living outside of France retaining the right to vote in EU elections.

Mr White said: “These are useful examples that could stimulate discussion about how Northern Ireland would close that deficit, that democratic gap, and would be able to secure voices for Northern Ireland in a European parliament in respect of matters that would definitely touch upon the law of Northern Ireland.

“We have forwarded this not to stir any pot or make life difficult, but we are fundamentally democrats, and if there is a democratic deficit, it seems sensible to us that those who are capable of remedying this be asked to put their minds to addressing that very issue.”

SDLP Councillor Séamas de Faoite, who invited Mr White and Dr Costello to City Hall, forwarded the council proposal. He said: “I am concerned that the argument around the democratic deficit is used to undermine the issues around the protocol, and in turn undermine some of the benefits that we may have, and some of the protections we might have.

“This could put us in a position where we can try everything we can to protect as much of our relationship with Europe, and reflect the opinions of people here, who want to maintain as much of that relationship as possible.”

He added: “I am sorry it falls again for the council to be the place this issue is discussed. It should properly be in front of the Scrutiny Committee of the Executive’s Office at the Assembly. But we are in a position again where this body is the one that raises up people’s voices for the time being.”

UUP Councillor John Kyle said: “For me, as a prospective, it doesn’t really offer us very much, in fact, you could say it is just a fig leaf. The French overseas colonies are part of the French government’s presence in the EU.

“Prior to Brexit, one of the three MEP’s was a unionist. In all likelihood we would have one voice within a parliament of 705. In terms of giving us reassurance that our concerns would be heard, and that our comments would be responded to, to date, the EU seems to be opposed to the concerns of the unionist people, and seems to be resistant to making changes that would address our major concerns.

“To be offered one seat potentially within the European parliament is really just giving more legitimacy to those voices that oppose our concerns, rather than giving space and recognition to our concerns.”

He said a seat at the European parliament would “give democratic legitimacy to whatever the European Union wanted to do in respect to Northern Ireland, and in respect to the concerns of Unionists.”

The council proposal states: “Belfast City Council recognises the concerns about a democratic deficit in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol and its continued implementation.

“It agrees to write to the British and Irish governments, and the European Commission, to propose that Northern Ireland be allocated representation in the European Parliament and Committee of the Regions with voting rights limited to matters which directly relate to or govern the Northern Ireland protocol.

“It believes representation in both institutions should be commensurate with a member state of the same or a similar population, to ensure that Northern Ireland’s voice is adequately heard, and proposes that members of the European Parliament representing Northern Ireland should be directly elected, and those members should be appointed by the Northern Ireland Assembly.”



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