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Northern Ireland business leaders tell of relief as MPs take a no-deal Brexit off table

Prime Minister Theresa May in the Commons.
Prime Minister Theresa May in the Commons.
Michael Gove leads the debate for the PM after she lost her voice
MPs wait for the result of an amended motion on rejecting leaving the EU with no deal.
Ann McGregor
Leo Varadkar
Glyn Roberts
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Northern Ireland's business leaders have expressed relief at the House of Commons vote to take a no-deal Brexit off the table.

And they called on Parliament to today support a motion to extend Article 50 and delay Brexit.

In two separate votes last night MPs opposed leaving the EU without a deal. Although the votes are not legally binding, the Prime Minister noted there was a "clear majority" against no-deal. She is now expected to bring her Brexit plan to the Commons for a third time next week.

Speaking in Washington, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that if the UK wanted to change its mind over Brexit it would be welcomed back like the "prodigal son" with "open arms".

The Commons will today vote on a two-month extension to Article 50. But Theresa May warned that if her deal isn't approved, a longer extension will be needed and that will require Britain to take part in May's EU elections.

"I do not think that would be the right outcome, but the House needs to face up to the consequences of the decisions it has taken," she said.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Mrs May had repeatedly offered a choice between her deal and no-deal, adding: "In the last 24 hours Parliament has decisively rejected both."

He continued: "Parliament must now take control of the situation. Myself, the shadow Brexit Secretary and others will have meetings with members across the House to find a compromise solution that can command support."

There were chaotic scenes in the Commons as the Government tabled a motion to prevent a crash Brexit on March 29.

Before MPs voted on the Government's motion, they supported an amendment tabled by Labour MP Yvette Cooper rejecting a no-deal Brexit under any circumstances by 312-308 votes.

Tory whips then ordered their MPs to vote against the Government's own motion, despite having previously promised a free vote. The Government motion, as amended, was passed by 321 to 278 votes. A total of 13 Government ministers - including Amber Rudd, David Mundell, David Gaulke and Greg Clarke - defied the whips by abstaining.

Work and Pensions Minister Sarah Newton resigned after voting for the proposal.

Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief executive Ann McGregor said: "NI Chamber welcomes the result of the vote. However, a disorderly withdrawal from the EU is still a clear and present danger.

"The vote is not legally binding and only relevant if it is followed up with legislative action by the UK Parliament. The reality is without concrete action, businesses still face an uncontrolled exit that they don't want nor are ready for."

She added: "Extending Article 50 is now a necessity, but it brings a fear of endless uncertainty for businesses. Our members need a clear timeline for what happens next."

Retail Northern Ireland chief executive Glyn Roberts said the Commons vote brought "some degree of certainty" for business.

"A no-deal exit would cause untold damage to cross-border shopping and to border town economies, and would doubtless lead to a considerable increase in illegal cross-border trade where an impractical 'honour-based' system of duties had been proposed by the UK ," he said.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said it was "no way to run the country" with a "chaotic atmosphere" around every Commons vote and Parliament should have had such discussions two years ago. He said that a no-deal would be "wholly detrimental" to Northern Ireland.

"I'm a proud unionist and I want to see my country and its people prosper. I don't want to see anything done that would undermine the Union," he added.

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry has said the Commons' rejection of a no-deal Brexit must be followed by a second referendum.

"Voting to take a no-deal Brexit off the table is necessary but not sufficient," he said.

"A no-deal outcome would be a disaster for the UK as a whole, but a catastrophe for Northern Ireland, so it is right to rule it out. However, delay for delay's sake, and in particular to cover up the inability of the House of Commons to agree on anything, doesn't really take us too far forward.

"The clearest and most democratic way forward is a people's vote, including both the Prime Minister's deal and the Remain option. This needs to be tested in Parliament as a matter of urgency."

Dr Farry said he was "appalled" that DUP MPs voted to keep no-deal on the table.

"This is utterly reckless and irresponsible. The notion of keeping this back for some future negotiation is entirely self-defeating," he said.

"A no-deal harms the UK far more and the UK has no leverage."

Green Party leader Clare Bailey welcomed Parliament's vote but voiced concern that it was a narrow victory.

"The Commons vote provides a crumb of comfort for the people of Northern Ireland during what has been a really disconcerting week," she said. "I am concerned that the vote was so narrow and so that many MPs are prepared to support a no deal Brexit.

"That includes 10 DUP MPs who clearly had their fingers in their ears today as our business community detailed the devastating consequences of a no deal Brexit."

MPs also voted by 374 to 164 to reject a plan to delay the UK's departure for two months so that there can be a "managed no-deal" Brexit.

The Malthouse Compromise was supported by the DUP and European Research Group.

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