The Northern Ireland assembly has backed a call for an extension to the Brexit transition period, in a surprise move, which argues that the UK should be given time to focus on the coronavirus crisis first.
Nationalist, green and social democratic parties led calls in Stormont for the extension, with the DUP and UUP voting against such a move.
The motion – proposed by the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole – had not been expected to carry because of the opposition.
But the passing of such a motion should ‘send a powerful’ message that one of the communities at the heart of the consequences of Brexit had spoken out.
O’Toole – a former Downing Street adviser – urged London to take notice as it was ‘uniquely recognised as a named party in the withdrawal agreement’.
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He said: ‘This is not about rerunning the referendum, it’s about accepting that we are in the middle of the most serious public health crisis in living memory. We are also facing a significant economic recession that will put businesses and jobs at risk. This is not the moment to attempt to rupture and renegotiate our largest trading relationship.’
The DUP’s Arlene Foster previously rejected calls for a debate on an extension.
She said: ‘I believe something we need to focus on doing is making sure that we have the minimum amount of risk to the Northern Ireland economy, that’s certainly where my focus is at currently in terms of the Northern Ireland protocol, and I hope it’s where the focus of my colleagues is at as well.
‘I would much prefer to move forward in terms of consensus, building consensus. I think we have consensus around the fact that we all want to protect the economy of Northern Ireland after Brexit and after the transition period, and therefore we should focus on that and make sure that we do our best for the economy and the people of Northern Ireland.’
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill said an extension was necessary because the local economy was ‘on its knees’.
‘Given the Covid-19 pandemic and the economic impact that’s having on our economy, I think it’s only reasonable the deadline should be extended,’ she said.
‘There’s a need for an extension in order to allow us to be able to deal with the economic catastrophe that is Covid-19 and its implications for our economy.
‘There isn’t anything good to come from Brexit, there should be an extension and if this is going to be foisted upon us then my opinion is that there should be an extension.
‘Our local economy is on its knees because of the coronavirus epidemic and the fact that they’re having to respond and deal with all of that and to have that shock, and then to have the Brexit shock, the outcome of which remains to be seen, so there should be an extension.’
Green Party MLA Rachel Woods said that the government ‘must take account of the shockwaves the Covid-19 crisis has sent throughout our entire society and the fact that Northern Ireland as a whole is not ready or adequately prepared for the protocol [Brexit arrangements] coming into effect in January’.