Northern Ireland referendum on EU regulatory alignment is non-starter

Boris Johnson dismissed a proposal for a Northern Ireland referendum on EU regulatory alignment
Boris Johnson dismissed a proposal for a Northern Ireland referendum on EU regulatory alignment

STORMONT'S two biggest parties have joined British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in ruling out a referendum to decide whether Northern Ireland should be part of the EU single market after Brexit.

The idea of letting the people of the north vote on alignment with the EU has been suggested as an alternative to ensuring the Stormont institutions, which have been suspended for the past two-and-a-half years, provide consent for the region to remain in the so-called zone of regulatory compliance after 2020.

The 'Stormont lock' proposal, which would ask for the consent of the assembly and executive every four years, formed part of the Tory leader's final pitch to the EU and is thought to be a concession to the DUP, which could potentially veto the north's place in the single market by deploying a petition of concern.

Beyond the British government and the DUP, the proposal has gained little traction.

At Westminster yesterday as Mr Johnson fielded questions about his proposed Brexit deal, former direct rule minister Sir George Howarth said making regulatory alignment contingent on "periodic renewal" would only increase the "fragility of the political situation that already exists" in the north.

"Is there not a case to consider, given particularly that the executive and assembly are not even up and running, for putting the case directly to the people of Northern Ireland in the form of a referendum, to see what they think about it?" he asked the prime minister.

But the Tory leader gave the idea a cool reception.

"I am not sure that referendums have a great history in our country recently of bringing people together," Mr Johnson responded.

"I appreciate the right honourable gentleman’s experience and the sincerity with which he approaches this subject, and he is obviously right to raise the concerns of both communities, but I think that this proposal offers a way forward for both communities and it is very important that the views of all communities are respected – that is why the principle of consent is at the heart of what we are proposing."

The idea of a referendum was also rejected by Sinn Féin and the DUP, with the latter highlighting how it had been dismissed by the British prime minister.

A Sinn Féin spokesman said: "The only referendum that matters is that the people of the north voted to remain in the EU and there is no consent for any of the reckless and dangerous nonsense being spun from London."

When The Irish News asked Downing Street how the British government it proposed consent to regulatory compliance was given in the absence of devolved institutions, a spokesman said: "Our priority remains to do all we can to support the restoration of the executive.

"The secretary of state for Northern Ireland is continuing engagement with the Northern Ireland political parties."