The Northern Ireland Assembly has passed a motion calling on the UK government to request an extension to the Brexit transition period in the wake of the “extreme challenges” posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
It comes as Brussels and London engage in a fourth round of talks on a post-Brexit trade deal as the formal deadline for extending the 11-month transition period approaches at the end of this month.
Boris Johnson has repeatedly rejected calls for the government to extend the negotiations, risking the possibility of the UK crashing out of the single market at the end of 2020 if no trade deal with the bloc is reached.
The non-binding motion at Stormont calls on the UK government “to request, and the European Union to agree, an extension of the current Brexit transition period beyond 31 December 2020 in order that businesses have adequate time to prepare for the implementation of new arrangements”.
It adds: “This Assembly notes its unique role as a named party to the UK-EU withdrawal agreement and the unique impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland; further notes the ongoing Covid-19 crisis and the extreme challenges facing businesses and workers”.
After it was passed by 50-38 votes on Tuesday evening, the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole, who proposed the motion, said: “That’s it. The NI Assembly has passed a motion calling for a transition extension until we get through the Covid crisis. For the past 3 years the UK government said it wanted to listen to NI’s representatives. We’ve spoken – over to them.”
During the debate, the former No 10 adviser also urged members to “consider whether their constituents deserve the consequences of a crash out of the transition at the end of this year in the middle of the biggest global health crisis that any of us have lived through”.
He said: “Some will say, ‘What is the point of this motion? Boris Johnston and his gang will do whatever they want. Stormont is irrelevant’. Except that last part is not true. At the insistence of Boris Johnston's government, the Northern Ireland Assembly is a named party to the withdrawal agreement. That is unique. The Scottish Parliament is not mentioned; the Welsh Assembly is not mentioned; Dáil Éireann is not mentioned; the Bundestag is not mentioned; but we are.”
Responding to vote, the Liberal Democrat’s Brexit and foreign affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said: “The Conservatives’ proposed Brexit will have a profound impact on the people and businesses of Northern Ireland.”
He added: “The NI Assembly’s vote is a clear indication that Boris Johnson must rethink and do the right thing for those across the UK. Not enough progress has been made on negotiations and we are now dangerously close to the extension deadline.”
Ahead of the motion being debated at Stormont, however, the DUP’s Westminster MP Sammy Wilson, described the motion as “irrelevant”, adding: “This is a decision to be made in London. The prime minister has made it quite clear that the 31 December is still the deadline”.