Pro-Remain parties in Northern Ireland have come together to insist that the Brexiteer Democratic Unionists do not represent the majority view in the region.
In a rare move, leaders of Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and Green Party presented a united front at Stormont in calling for the UK to remain in the EU’s single market and customs union structures post-Brexit.
They believe that is the only way to avoid the re-emergence of a hard border on the island of Ireland post-Brexit.
Representing 49 out of the crisis-hit Assembly’s 90 seats, in a region where 56% voted Remain in the EU referendum, the party leaders claimed the UK Government was not paying heed to the majority view, and instead indulging its Brexiteer confidence and supply partners at Westminster, the DUP.
Sinn Fein vice president and Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said the EU negotiators needed to hear “loud and clear” that people in the region wanted to remain within European structures.
“It’s important that we share this platform on the issue of Brexit because the majority of people voted here on a cross-community basis to remain within the EU, that is the position which we are true to,” she said.
“For my part the DUP don’t speak for people in the north, so it is important that we come together, those who share a common view in terms of the implications of Brexit, who share a common view in terms of what needs to happen next.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the parties were not adopting a “political” position, rather a “sensible” one.
He claimed elements of the DUP were also “warming” to the idea of continued alignment with the EU in terms of customs and single market rules.
“It’s absolutely clear we are all from different political parties, from different perspectives,” he told the cross-party event at Parliament Buildings in Belfast.
“But on this issue it’s important that as many of us as possible stand together to make it very, very clear – to both the British Government but also to the European Commission – that we cannot countenance a hard border in Ireland – equally we do not want to see a hard border or any kind of border down the Irish sea.
“What we want to see is open access for business and communities to travel and do business across the European continent.”
Alliance leader Naomi Long insisted the issue was not one that could be divided along traditional green or orange lines, despite the absence of a unionist in the multi-party gathering.
“The issue of Brexit is not one which will only affect nationalists or only affect unionists – it will affect every single person who lives in this region and many who live outside but who rely on this region for trade and investment,” she said.
Mrs Long said the Government was not hearing the majority opinion.
“They are only hearing the most extreme voices in terms of Brexit, that is not a healthy democratic situation,” she added.
“I wish we were here (in a functioning devolved Assembly) able to have these debates and discussions because I think what the Assembly would be saying at this time is much more in line with the joint statement which we have issued today.”
Green Party NI leader Steven Agnew said: “The people of Northern Ireland voted to Remain and their voices are not being adequately represented, that’s why we have come together today to do just that.”
Prime Minister Theresa May favours a customs partnership arrangement to avoid a hard border, whereby the UK would collect tariffs on behalf of the EU.
She faces serious opposition from Brexiteer members of her own government who back a model relying on technology and advance customs checks to minimise impediments at the frontier.
The EU has expressed doubts about both options.
Last December, the UK and EU agreed the need for a “backstop” option that would ensure no return of a hard border in Ireland – through an alignment of regulations across the island – even if a wider Brexit trade deal failed to materialise.
The UK rejected a subsequent attempt by the EU to translate that agreement into legally operable text in a proposed withdrawal treaty. A political stand-off has ensued over the vexed issue.
The four pro-Remain parties at Stormont insisted the backstop was an essential bottom line to safeguard stability on the island.
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds insisted Northern Ireland could not be treated differently to the rest of the UK.
“The joint statement from the four parties is silent about the catastrophic damage that would be done to Northern Ireland if we were to be separated economically from our main market, i.e. the rest of the UK,” he said.
“It is devoid of reality since even the Labour Party has made clear that the UK is leaving the single market and cannot stay in the customs union.
“And it is politically ironic since its main author, Sinn Fein, calls for it to be heard while it simultaneously prevents the formation of the executive, the recall of the Assembly, and actually boycotts Westminster where the main decisions are being discussed and decided.”
UUP leader Robin Swann claimed the proposed backstop would lead to a border in the Irish Sea – a move he said would undermine the terms of the Good Friday peace agreement.
“The Prime Minister made a commitment that she would not agree to anything that threatened the constitutional integrity of the UK,” he said.
“We will be expecting a robust response from her team as the next crucial round of negotiations gets under way.”