Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: The only way to avoid shambles that Brexit has become is if we agree to re-run the referendum

A People's Vote would be infinitely preferable to crashing out of the EU without a deal, argues Alban Maginness

Claire Hanna speaking at the People's Rally in the Ulster Hall at the weekend
Claire Hanna speaking at the People's Rally in the Ulster Hall at the weekend
Alban Maginness

By Alban Maginness

There was a delicious irony in holding the Rally for a People's Vote in the Ulster Hall, which for many people is the classic symbol of old-fashioned unionism. On Saturday, the Ulster Hall was politically transformed and the ghost of Paisley's firebrand oratory exorcised by Remain speakers and a capacity Remain audience into a vibrant demonstration of active support for a re-run of the European referendum.

The diverse mixture of the audience was notable, reflecting the serious concerns about Brexit of many people, both young and old, right across the community. The range of local politicians who spoke included Claire Hanna, the SDLP MLA, Naomi Long, the Alliance MEP, and Clare Bailey MLA, of the Greens, and it was impressive with its totally united Remain voice.

The Alliance leader, Naomi Long, emphasised to a responsive audience that the Good Friday Agreement is under threat from Brexit. The SDLP's MLA for South Belfast, Claire Hanna, said that the rally was about protecting the welfare of everyone here, including those who want to leave the EU.

They individually and collectively demanded a fresh, UK-wide referendum and they were supported by several young campaigners, who enthusiastically endorsed remaining in Europe.

But, crucially, it was the business people who spoke at the rally and who are at the frontline in terms of trade and job-creation who made the most effective arguments in favour of a fresh vote on Europe.

The main message was, if you want to cut the Gordian knot of Brexit, then hold a referendum to determine the issue in the full light of the prevailing critical circumstances that the UK has been plunged into.

No one now can honestly claim that they are not aware of the huge dangers of Brexit. The meltdown of an anarchic parliament and the manifest failure of politicians to reach a sellable solution for a Brexit deal means that there has to be an alternative method to get us out of the Brexit mess, otherwise there will be an unmitigated disaster.

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As Alasdair Campbell, Tony Blair's former top spin doctor and adviser, said at the rally: "I fight every day for a final-say referendum as being the only fair, democratic way of getting us out off the chaos that David Cameron's decision unleashed on the country."

Much focus at the rally was on the new Conservative Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, whom the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, described in his freshly published memoirs, as "a liar who only backed Leave to help his career". Cameron also compared the Leave campaign to racist Tory electioneering in 1964.

This undercurrent of racism had been deliberately exploited by Boris Johnson focusing in on Muslim Turkey and its possible accession to the European Union.

Civil wars are the worst type of warfare, because they are essentially fratricidal. While, on paper, there can be a military victory in a civil war, such as Bashir Assad in Syria, or General Franco in Spain, nobody can truly win in a civil war, for afterwards the country will still remain bitter and divided.

And so it is within the Conservative Party; no one can win their 30-year-old political civil war over Europe. The party that governed Britain for decades is irretrievably split over membership of the European Union.

There is no prospect of ever reuniting that party again and the election of Johnson has put paid to any such hope. His expulsion of the 21 Conservative MPs who voted against his government was the final straw and indicated Johnson's brutal aim to make the Tories into a solidly, undiluted, Brexit party.

One of those 21 Remain MPs was Dominic Grieve, authentic and courageous and an outstanding parliamentarian.

Speaking at the rally in the Ulster Hall, the former Attorney General was fiercely critical of Johnson, bluntly asserting, that Johnson did not understand the difference between truth and falsehood.

He confidently predicted that: "We are not leaving on the 31st of October" and "If the Prime Minister continues to follow this unusual fantasy, he will find that he will be out of office." He also added that there is an opportunity for a reset and that there was nothing undemocratic about going back and asking people to confirm their views. The question he, rightly, put was: "What are the Leavers frightened of?"

Brexit has destabilised and transformed politics throughout Britain. It has also damaged politics here, not least undermining the peace brought about by the Good Friday Agreement.

We just do not know what is going to happen, but we know that the current, appalling, state of politics demands a radical initiative that will avoid a catastrophe - and that initiative is a People's Vote.

As Claire Hanna succinctly put it: "The most plausible way out of this quagmire is a second vote."

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