Stormont Assembly members are set to reject the Government’s Brexit withdrawal deal as they debate the EU exit for the first time since restoration.
Just over a week after it was revived following a three-year political impasse, the devolved legislature in Belfast is debating whether to give legislative consent to the Brexit agreement.
While members are likely to withhold consent, their decision will not affect the Government’s plan to leave the EU at the end of the month.
Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister failed in a bid to delay the Assembly debate on Brexit.
He had wanted proceedings to be put back for a week to give MLAs the chance to table amendments.
Despite the backing of the Ulster Unionists, Mr Allister’s motion was voted down.
First Minister Arlene Foster opened the debate, explaining that the motion had been brought on Monday as the last time available before the Brexit Bill goes to the House of Lords on Tuesday.
The Democratic Unionist Party leader urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to “deliver on his promise” of unfettered access to the Great Britain market and ensure that “competitiveness is maintained”.
She said the Brexit deal poses “significant challenges for Northern Ireland” and called for MLAs to “take a stand” to show that the Assembly is “back in business” and will not be overruled by the Government.
Ulster Unionist MLA Mike Nesbitt said he “retained significant sympathy” for Mr Allister’s position, contending that MLAs were being “forced to vote on a binary proposition which leaves us no actual choice”.
However, he said his party will support the motion.
Alliance Party MLA Kellie Armstrong said there is no such thing as a good or sensible Brexit, but, accepting that it will happen at the end of the month, she added that it is time to “stand up and protect Northern Ireland”.
Ahead of the debate, Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said: “I’m fairly confident the Assembly will reject giving consent to Brexit which we all, in the main and in the majority, voted against.
“We are very conscious of the fact – and we have repeatedly stated this – that there is no good to come from Brexit – it brings nothing, only jeopardy to our economy and to jobs, to future prospects, and I think that will be reflected in the debate we will have in Assembly chamber today.”
Ms O’Neill noted that MSPs in Scotland had also rejected the Government’s legislation and predicted that politicians in Wales would follow suit.
“It’s significant that this Assembly sends a very firm message again that we reject Brexit, that we follow after Scotland has rejected Brexit, and I believe Wales will vote tomorrow to maybe also reject Brexit,” she said.
Ms O’Neill said Brexit had “irreversibly” changed the debate on a united Ireland.
The republican leader said the EU pledge which would see Northern Ireland regain EU membership in the event of unification was a key factor.
“That has changed the context of the conversation and I think there is a very positive conversation under way now which is irreversible, I think that’s where the whole political debate is,” she said.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the Government did not care about the people of Northern Ireland.
“It’s important that this Assembly asserts its authority on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland,” he said ahead of the debate.
“We have always said people here did not give consent for Brexit and it’s important that this Assembly withholds consent for Brexit.
“We know this British Government will ignore us but when they are ignoring us they are ignoring the people of Northern Ireland, people of Scotland and the representatives of the people of Wales.
“That shows you what kind of Government is sitting now in London. They do not care about people here, they don’t care about people in Scotland, and they are determined to go on with the madness that is this Brexit.
“Next week we will be dragged out of the European Union against our will, against the will of people here and people in Scotland. That’s why it’s important that we’re here, that’s why it’s important that we’re rejecting it.”
Mr Eastwood said the UK was facing a cliff-edge at the end of the year, insisting it would be impossible to strike a trade deal with the EU before then.
“So we are faced with chaos at the beginning of 2021,” he said.