Summary of speech from Naomi Long MEP to the Renew Group

Speaking to the Renew Group of MEPs in the European Parliament, Alliance Leader Naomi Long MEP said: “Brexit is clearly challenging for all of us. Those of us in Europe, those of us in the United Kingdom and in Ireland, but it is an existential challenge for us in Northern Ireland. It undermines the notion of interdependence, cooperation, freedom of movement and respect for different identities that has underpinned the Good Friday Agreement for the last 21 years.

“Our peace and security rely upon the Good Friday Agreement, our political system relies upon the Good Friday Agreement, and it is not unrelated to Brexit that our Assembly collapsed only 6 months after Brexit was voted through, because the diametrically opposed positions of the parties in Northern Ireland on the issue of Brexit made it impossible to find a cohesive Executive. Whilst it wasn’t the sole reason for the collapse, it certainly added to the pressures and has definitely made restoration of that Executive impossible. We have now been without any regional government in Northern Ireland for three years.

“In the United Kingdom, we don’t have a written constitution and our parliamentary democracy is based on hundreds of years of convention and relies very much on people respecting the traditions of our Parliament and how it operates. We have seen that parliamentary democracy swept away.

“Prorogation of Parliament for five weeks is unprecedented in a recess period. When MPs are on holiday Parliament can be recalled. For example, when I was an MP we were recalled when it came to a vote on the war in Syria: we were able to take that to a Parliamentary vote despite the recess. That is impossible now during prorogation. Therefore, even in a crisis of the magnitude of a war being declared on the United Kingdom, Parliament cannot be recalled, so no one should be under any illusion that this is an abnormal set of circumstances. We also have senior government ministers who decide for themselves whether they will abide by the legislation that has been passed. Again, unprecedented that a government would refuse to abide by legislation in Parliament.

“I believe the Prime Minister’s intention is to run out the clock. He would then turn to Parliament with the Northern Ireland-only backstop, and he would say that if Parliament rejected it, Parliament were to blame for a no-deal Brexit because he fully expected it to be rejected. Or alternatively, if they accepted it, he would be the saviour of the country and would go to an election on a high, having got the deal through. So it was a win-win scenario.

“I think Boris Johnson will try to split the European Union and will lobby other governments to refuse an extension. He will seek to isolate and pressure the Republic of Ireland around the backstop and I think he will try to frustrate the EU, for example by not appointing a Commissioner in the hope that the UK will be expelled from the EU for its behaviour, and I believe that we must resist giving the Prime Minister what he wants at every step.

“We are in a crisis, and I am asking people to go and speak to their heads of government to avoid, at all costs, a confrontation with the Prime Minister. Do not allow the EU to take the blame for the crisis which is unfolding, the Prime Minister should bear responsibility for that, but beware also that a no-deal exit from the EU will be damaging to the EU. Brexit has demonstrated forcibly that leaving the EU is a disastrous course of action. That has been beneficial to the European Union in terms of quelling the movements in other countries to leave, and I would plead with you not to allow the UK to reinvigorate that movement, as its economy will crash and that contagion will spread.

“In particular, in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland-only backstop is not popular with the Democratic Unionist Party, it is not popular with the ERG and elements of the Conservative Party but it is popular with business, trade unions, civic society and with the majority of voters in Northern Ireland.

“We have been hugely traumatised with 40 years of violence. It is a majorly sensitive issue and I would appeal to people to urge caution around their language when they talk about the potential for violence and instability. We are dealing with a population that suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, with one of the highest suicide rates in Europe and so when people use glib language around violence and potential for violence to be reignited, it re-traumises our community. When the Prime Minister said he would rather “die in a ditch” than concede anything on the Irish border, it caused tremendous hurt and distress to those who have found their family relatives dead in ditches at the Irish border over many years.

“I would appeal to us as a Group to use our influence to ensure that we do not allow Prime Minister Johnson to frustrate Parliament, to frustrate the European Union, but also not to unpick the basis of the Good Friday Agreement on which our peace and our prosperity rests.”