MLAs quiz Arlene Foster over concerns for north after Brexit

First Minister Arlene Foster with DUP colleagues at Stormont Castle after the Brexit vote. Picture by Hugh Russell
Lesley-Anne McKeown, Press Association

THE Brexit vote paves the way for many new opportunities, according to the first minister.

In a bid to stem concerns raised in the Stormont assembly, Arlene Foster promised to "work for the good of all the people" in any forthcoming negotiations on Europe.

She said: "I absolutely fundamentally believe that this vote gives us the opportunity for ambition, for innovation, for flexibility and for imagination."

Of the five largest parties at Stormont, only Mrs Foster's DUP advocated leaving the European Union.

She faced repeated questions from MLAs about how she would reconcile her party political views with the 56 per cent of voters who marked Remain on their referendum ballot papers.

She added: "I know that there are a lot of people in Northern Ireland who are disappointed, there are a lot of people who are angry, there are a lot of people who have made all sorts of terrible prophecies of doom and if others want to engage in navel gazing that is fine, my focus is on doing what is right for all of the people of Northern Ireland in terms of the negotiations that will be coming up very soon."

Meanwhile, assurances were also offered to the thousands of migrants living and working in the region.

Mrs Foster said: "We should send out a very strong message here today – the vote on Thursday was to leave the institutions of the European Union. It was not to leave Europe. Therefore we have very close ties with the peoples of Europe and those close ties will continue."

Three hours had been set aside for an special debate on Brexit after an emergency motion was tabled by the leader of the Opposition Mike Nesbitt.

At times Speaker Robin Newton had to reprimand MLAs telling them to show respect.

Opening the discussion, Mr Nesbitt said the "political crisis" had plunged the country into a period of uncertainty which could last for years.

However, the outcome must be accepted, he said.

"The result is the result – there is no point in trying to say it was a non-binding referendum, that Parliament is sovereign," Mr Nesbitt said.

"We are on our way out. We have to accept that but we have to acknowledge that within Northern Ireland 56 per cent of people who voted, voted to remain."

He warned of huge and unintended consequences and called for clarity on the way forward from the executive.

"It is not just about the peace funds, and we all agree we have done well from peace funds,"said Mr Nesbitt.

"But it is about the competitive draw down; it is about the common agricultural policy; the single farm payment; it is about our universities; our community and voluntary sector, it is about infrastructure – can we even compete for infrastructure funds?

"What about corporation tax? What happens now? Is there an opportunity to get it without a hit to the block grant or has it gone for good? This is the sort of clarity that we seek."

Prominent Leave campaigner Christopher Stalford told the chamber that ignoring the result would be a "grave mistake" and dismissed as "crazy" some of the proposals to block Brexit.

He said: "The reality is that the people of this country were offered a choice and they made their choice.

"Had the vote gone the other way I would have had to take it on the chin and move on.

"Over the last 48 hours we have heard all sorts of crazy and interesting ideas as to how the people's verdict can be overturned. I say to go down that road and to ignore the democratic verdict of people of this United Kingdom would be a grave mistake."

Sinn Féin's Conor Murphy said people in his border constituency were "fearful and bewildered" about their future.

But the veteran republican called for politicians on all sides to "row in" behind the executive to work with their Irish, Scottish and European "friends" to find the best deal possible.

He said: "We have a responsibility collectively, in the absence of any direction from London, to chart the best course for the people that we represent and to give clarity."

In an impassioned speech, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood vowed to fight against being "dragged out of the EU by the right wing of the Tory party".

He said: "People in Northern Ireland told us that they wanted to remain within the European Union and we are going to look for every single device possible to make sure that happens, and I hope others join with us."

Meanwhile, Naomi Long, deputy leader of the cross community Alliance Party, described the referendum result as regrettable but said it must be accepted.

She said: "To do otherwise would leave an electorate, which was already angry and disaffected more angry and disaffected.

"No government should ever go to the people and ask their view on a matter simply to ignore the view that they are given by the people."

Ms Long also called for recognition of the sharp divide that has opened up between the UK nations which voted to remain and those that backed Brexit.

"To ignore that, to fail to seek an accommodation of those views is I believe to place the future of the United Kingdom in peril," she warned.


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