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Senator Neale Richmond 'Ireland should ask for a second Brexit referendum'

It would be a risky move but it could focus the minds of the UK government to take the negotiations a bit more seriously, writes Senator Neale Richmond.

WHEN THE PEOPLE of the United Kingdom went to the polls last year, they were faced with one clear option and one extremely unclear option. The clear option was the status quo: The UK would remain as a member of the European Union. The second option was to leave the EU.

What exactly that meant was at that time, and indeed still is, a complete mystery. Many on the Leave side painted Utopian visions of the UK being restored as a global power with the resurgence of the Empire and the ability to be free from the shackles of European bureaucracy, that has supposedly been holding the UK back since 1973.

Unclear what Brexit will look like

A year on from the Referendum and following two rounds of detailed negotiations, it is far from clear what Brexit will look like, be it soft, hard or red white and blue. It is becoming apparent that the desires of the hard line Brexiteers will certainly not be met. The UK will have to meet its financial commitments in the form of a divorce bill and the UK will also need to compromise on a range of other areas.

In addition, the tidal wave of new trade deals has not been forthcoming. In the period that the EU has signed new trade deals with Canada and Japan, the UK has been abruptly told by countries such as Australia that any trade deal will only come after a deal with the EU is signed.

Even though Brexit has yet to actually occur, the UK’s economy has suffered with tepid growth rates according to the IMF, declines in household savings and growth while sterling is 11% down against the dollar and 18% down against the euro.

At this stage, there is only one mainstream party advocating for an exit from Brexit in the form of the traditional pro-European voices in the Liberal Democrats. Prime Minister Theresa May was a reluctant Remainer as Home Secretary. Now she leads a government whose Brexit position seems to be increasingly driven by the big four Eurosceptic beasts, in the form of David Davis, Liam Fox, Michael Gove and Boris Johnston, with sensible politicians like Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond being constantly undermined.

A clear vacuum in the Brexit debate

Buoyed by a credible result in the General Election campaign, Jeremy Corbyn remains as leader of the opposition and leader of the supposedly pro-European Labour Party. This is a complex position as prior to becoming leader and prior to the referendum campaign, Jeremy Corbyn was a determined Eurosceptic.

After a terrible effort in the referendum campaign itself, Corbyn has begun to reveal his true colours advocating a hard Brexit.

Within Scotland, the SNP is more focused on running its own referendum, a second Independence Referendum. In Northern Ireland, the continuing stand-off in Stormont means Northern Ireland’s voice is solely being communicated by the pro Brexit DUP MPs currently propping up the Conservative government.

This means that there is a clear vacuum in the Brexit debate in the UK, with no one materially pushing for a second referendum or a de-triggering of Article 50. A few well-intentioned, but realistically toothless, interventions from former leading politicians simply do not have any material bearing over the debate.

A second referendum

Given the fact that just 52% of people in the UK voted to leave in the EU in the first place and given that only one outcome was ever demonstrated clearly, it would seem eminently sensible to me that following the conclusion of the Brexit negotiations, before the great repeal Act is passed by the Houses of Parliament, that perhaps the people of the UK should be consulted once again in the form of a second referendum.

A second referendum campaign could be run with the electorate given two very clear options. Remain within the EU or leave based on the terms of the Brexit negotiations.
It is here that I believe that Ireland, as the EU member state that will most be impacted by Brexit, could intervene in this process by proposing an amendment to the negotiation terms requiring that any deal is put before the people in the form of a referendum.

It would be a risky move but it could focus the minds of the UK government to take the negotiations a bit more seriously and if it were to come to pass it would prove a welcome opportunity for the people of the UK to have a genuine and open debate about two substantive options before voting accordingly.

Senator Neale Richmond is the Fine Gael spokesman on EU Affairs in Seanad Éireann and was the Chairman of the Seanad Brexit Committee.

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