Don’t rule out a second vote [on EU]

Posted By: October 29, 2016

Irish News Editorial (Belfast). Saturday, October 29, 2016
The rejection of the legal challenge to Brexit at the High Court in Belfast yesterday was predictable and few observers anticipated that an action invoking the Good Friday Agreement would suddenly halt the UK’s scheduled withdrawal from the EU in its tracks.

However, the wider debate over the looming crisis remains at an early stage and yesterday’s intervention by the former prime minister Tony Blair highlighted the enormous concerns and uncertainties which surround the position of the British government.

While Mr. Blair’s reputation has clearly been damaged since he left Downing Street, the same could be said of many other holders of the same office and he remains a vastly experienced political figure who can offer a huge personal insight into European affairs.

He was fully entitled to conclude that the vote last June, in which Brexit was narrowly endorsed across the UK, but firmly rejected in both Northern Ireland and Scotland, was a “catastrophe” and that further down the line the option of a second referendum could not be ruled out.

This is not a case of refusing to accept the verdict of the ballot box but rather of highlighting the very real prospect that, after the prolonged talks with the EU are eventually completed, the UK will face a hugely unpalatable deal over the movement of people and the single market which bears no resemblance to the proposals in circulation last summer.

As Mr. Blair said, in such radically different circumstances, people would need to be given the opportunity, either through parliament, a general election or indeed another referendum, to provide their view.

It will be noted that his latest successor, Theresa May, does not have a personal mandate to lead her country’s negotiations and inherited a shaky House of Commons majority of just 12 from David Cameron.

A tape which emerged in The Guardian earlier this week revealed that during a meeting with investment bankers before the referendum, she privately expressed much deeper alarm about a range of Brexit consequences than she has been prepared to publicly admit since becoming prime minister.

Mrs. May also declared during a visit to Belfast days in advance of the vote that it was “inconceivable” that Irish border arrangements could be left intact by a UK withdrawal from the EU, but has since attempted to backtrack on what amounted to a simple statement of fact on an issue of central importance.

Although many valid points on related matters were raised in the course of the ultimately unsuccessful application at the High Court in Belfast, it is appropriate that the spotlight should switch back to the political arena.

All the evidence is that Mrs. May and her senior colleagues are on a journey into the unknown as they set out to trigger the withdrawal mechanism through Section 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, and her simplistic assertion that Brexit means Brexit is only one of a number of possible outcomes.