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EU Special Status for Northern Ireland

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 17th October 2016.

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Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly notes the current public concern arising from the European Union referendum vote; endorses the proposal of the Irish Government and others that there should be legal recognition of the unique status of Northern Ireland and the circumstances on the island as part of the arrangements to leave the European Union; believes that this is one mechanism that can safeguard the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, including future access to European Union funding opportunities; and calls on the British Government to fully endorse, and to negotiate for, this outcome in discussions on leaving the European Union. — [Mr Eastwood.]

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I call Paula Bradshaw. Ms Bradshaw, you will have four minutes, and you will not be allowed any additional minute should you take an intervention.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I support the motion. I would like to briefly emphasise some practical issues with regard to health that special status could help to resolve. First, the most directly practical issue is access to healthcare in other EU member states, notably for holidaymakers who have sudden illnesses or accidents. Currently, we have reciprocal rights through the European health insurance card. For example, residents in Northern Ireland will be looked after in Spain if they fall ill on holiday on the basis of EU citizenship and residence. Should the UK proceed to leave the EU, those reciprocal arrangements will no longer be in place. However, special status for Northern Ireland would enable us more easily to negotiate an opt-in whereby residents here would continue to enjoy these rights.

Contrary to what some Members said, us leaving the EU will have a devastating impact on tourism because people will find it more expensive to come on holiday here without insurance.

Secondly, employment is a devolved matter, as is health, so there is no good reason for us to move away from working time directives as they currently apply in the health sector and beyond. The rights of staff, particularly in sectors where there is a significant —


Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker 4:15 pm, 17th October 2016

Order. There is a constant murmuring from certain Benches. Please show some respect to an Assembly colleague when she is making remarks.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

— vocational element to a career choice, should absolutely not be removed. A special status arrangement could protect these. Indeed, there is a strong case that retaining EU standards in areas such as these will be good not just for public-sector workers but for businesses, as goods and services exported from Northern Ireland will be known to maintain EU employment standards.

Thirdly, there is the development and licensing of medicines and medical research. This is trickier perhaps, but, if reciprocal rights are agreed and employment standards maintained, there is no reason why such a special status arrangement should not include access to medicines licensed and developed in the EU, and to clinical trials data, on the same basis as currently. Importantly, it would also include continuing medical research in Northern Ireland available to, and potentially partially funded by, the EU. It is absolutely vital that a decision that had majority backing in England and Wales does not result in negative impacts on our medical research at, for example, the cancer research centre at Queen's, which is in my constituency.

Finally, we will need some form of understanding around cross-border services. Clearly, this would be easier if the UK were to retain in some form the customs union and the single market, thus retaining maximum free movement across the border. Failing this, special status, as outlined above, would surely help. We would also need to look at cross-border medical training standards and so on to maximise the potential for cross-border solutions to care, particularly for people with rarer conditions.

Special status would be good not just for our economy. More importantly, it is vital for our basic health and well-being going into the future. Today I therefore call on the Executive to agree a common platform for special status for health and other areas as a matter of urgency, and to develop a plan to ensure that Northern Ireland has the relevant influence in London and Brussels to deliver on it.

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will start with a few words of thanks. The first is to the Alliance Party for the thoughtful contributions of Ms Bradshaw and Mr Farry. There are things to build on there, I think.

Secondly, I thank Sinn Féin. Somewhat begrudgingly, sheepishly and negatively, they eventually said that they were going to support the amendment, and I will come back to any and all that.

May I also thank the DUP? I want to rely upon what Alex Salmond said after Theresa May made her hard Brexit speech at the Tory party conference, and I will paraphrase it by saying to the DUP, "We should be grateful to you. In your various contributions, you lifted the lid on your true intent and the emptiness of your programme". I want, first and foremost, to concentrate on that.

I remember being at a senate meeting of Queen's University a long number of years ago. I was sitting next to the vice chancellor, and he made a comment about the person who had just spoken, "There speaks a man who digs a number of holes and then jumps into the deepest one". That is the only way to characterise today's DUP contributions, which were remarkable in how stuck they were in the narrative of a post-Brexit vote that completely ignored the hard Brexit speech of Theresa May. I say to unionism and to any who voted in favour of Brexit, read what the DUP said today and draw your own conclusions about where your interests lay.

I will give you three examples —

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will in a second. I will deal with some of the comments that Mr Stalford made, and then I will let him in. Mr Logan said that the DUP had a seat at the table because it had eight MPs. What sort of a seat at a table is eight MPs, when Theresa May has said that she will not consult or give voice to the Parliament at Westminster in respect of article 50? Is that Theresa May's response to the letter of August from the First Minister and deputy First Minister asking for a seat at the table? I wonder.

Then we come to the comments of Mr Stalford, who relied upon the exercise of democracy which was the referendum to justify everything that flows from the referendum. If I were a Brexit Minister in London at the moment, I would draw enormous reassurance from what Mr Stalford said, because essentially the argument was that whatever London does, whatever the scale of its excesses, whatever the deficits that might exist around Brexit, we will swallow hard. What a way to conduct a hard negotiation when the British Prime Minister has said that it will be a hard Brexit. I will give way to the Member.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Thank you. The Member accuses us of ignoring the context of a speech given by the Prime Minister. Is it not a fact that the Member is trying to ignore the fact that 52% of the people who voted in the referendum gave their answer, and their answer is, "We are leaving the European Union"?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

I find that another remarkable contribution because all the Member hears is what happened in June, and he does not hear what the Prime Minister said in September. So, let me remind the Member what the British Prime Minister said in her hard Brexit speech:

"the negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union are the responsibility of the Government and nobody else."


That is your seat at the table, Mr Stalford —

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

through you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Then she added:

"We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice."

Never in recent economic history have 20 words had such immediate economic impact, because therein saw the spiral in the value of sterling. If you do not believe me, listen to what Angela Merkel said —


Let us ignore the strongest voice in the European Union when it comes to the affairs of the European Union. What did she say in relation to that? She said that it was:

“a systemic challenge for the entire European Union”.

In coordination, within days, two of the biggest German trade organisations made it very clear that the terms under which May had spoken were not going to be the terms under which there would be a Brexit deal.

What is remarkable is that in all the DUP contributions, including the remarkable one that referred to a few grey areas that we had to work out, nobody seemed to recognise that the game changed with the May statement and that, with the May statement and hard Brexit, the terms of withdrawal were laid down. The DUP does not seem to have realised that and the consequences of all that.

It was also really astounding that Jeffrey Donaldson was left out hanging in this debate. Remember what he said:

“What we’re really looking for is a special deal for the island of Ireland which enables free movement of goods and people on the island, and preserves the institutions we’ve created under the various agreements”.

Theresa May in her September speech gave her answer to Jeffrey Donaldson, and three DUP Members in this debate gave their answer to Jeffrey Donaldson. I wonder what Jeffrey Donaldson has to say about all that.

I want to deal briefly with Sinn Féin. Not for the first time, the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. It is remarkable that, in what Martin McGuinness said in 'The Guardian' yesterday, he never once referred to the court case in Belfast to keep us in Europe or that he continues to argue to remain. I am not going to make a point about that because I know he makes the argument to remain. But do not pretend, on the basis of our motion, that the SDLP is somehow weakening on the issue of remain.

Let me remind John O'Dowd — he did not seem to remember this when he spoke earlier — that his own deputy First Minister called yesterday for special rules to apply to Northern Ireland. He said that Ireland needs to be treated as a special case by Brussels and so on and so forth. Those are the right arguments, even though Sinn Féin came to the right vote in a begrudging way. Let me put down this marker: just as the DUP put all its eggs in the London basket — we see where that is taking us — the Sinn Féin strategy is to blame London for Brexit and blame Dublin for not defending the national interest. Martin McGuinness hinted at that strategy in yesterday's article when he said:

"it is critical that we have an Irish government fighting our corner".

He is setting an Irish Government up to fail. That is their problem. Our challenge is to call out what the Tories in London are doing, to call out anybody who puts our national interest in jeopardy, as the petulant words from the First Minister in response to the all-Ireland forum on dialogue did and to call out anybody who plays politics with this and sets up any Government for failure, as Sinn Féin has done in my view.

I will move on from that. There is a position of strength in this debate. Stephen Farry was right to say we are building upon what happened last week. Let us work on that axis and maybe, sooner or later, the Ulster Unionists will recognise where the strength is and the DUP will recognise where the weakness is. The strength is the island and the response of the island. It is about recognising that the economic and other affairs of this island are so intimately connected —

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Alex Attwood Alex Attwood Social Democratic and Labour Party

— that, if we do not fight together, we will go down together.

Question put. The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 46; Noes 47


Mr Agnew, Ms Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Mr Attwood, Ms Bailey, Mr Boylan, Ms Boyle, Ms S Bradley, Ms Bradshaw, Ms Dillon, Mr Durkan, Mr Eastwood, Dr Farry, Ms Fearon, Mr Ford, Ms Gildernew, Ms Hanna, Mr Kearney, Mr Kelly, Mrs Long, Mr Lunn, Mr Lynch, Mr Lyttle, Mr McAleer, Mr F McCann, Ms J McCann, Mr McCartney, Mr McCrossan, Mr McElduff, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McGuigan, Mr McGuinness, Mr McMullan, Mr McNulty, Mr McPhillips, Ms Mallon, Mr Milne, Mr Mullan, Mr Murphy, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr Ó Muilleoir, Mr O'Dowd, Mrs O'Neill, Ms Seeley, Mr Sheehan

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr McNulty, Mr Mullan


Mr Aiken, Mr Allen, Mr Allister, Mr Anderson, Mrs Barton, Mr Beattie, Mr Beggs, Mr Bell, Mr M Bradley, Ms P Bradley, Mr T Buchanan, Ms Bunting, Mrs Cameron, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mrs Dobson, Mr Douglas, Mr Dunne, Mr Easton, Mrs Foster, Mr Frew, Mr Girvan, Mr Givan, Mrs Hale, Mr Hilditch, Mr Humphrey, Mr Irwin, Mrs Little Pengelly, Ms Lockhart, Mr Logan, Mr Lyons, Mr McCausland, Mr McKee, Mr Middleton, Lord Morrow, Mr Nesbitt, Mrs Overend, Mrs Palmer, Mr Poots, Mr Robinson, Mr Ross, Mr Smith, Mr Stalford, Mr Storey, Ms Sugden, Mr Weir, Mr Wells

Tellers for the Noes: Mrs Cameron, Mr Robinson

The following Members voted in both Lobbies and are therefore not counted in the result: Mr Carroll, Mr E McCann

Question accordingly negatived.