Dennis Kennedy
Dennis Campbell Kennedy is a writer on Irish and European affairs. Currently based in Belfast,  he has worked 
as a journalist in both parts of Ireland, and in the United States and Africa. From 1985-1991, he was Head of the 
European Commission Office in Northern Ireland, and later  lecturer in European Studies in Queen's University 
Born in Lisburn, Co.Antrim, he was educated at Wallace High School Lisburn, Queen's University, Belfast, and 
Trinity College Dublin. He graduated in Modern History from Queen's in 1958, and received a PhD from Dublin 
University (Trinity College) in 1985.


Whatever happened to the sovereignty of Parliament?

Posted by Webmaster on June 28, 2016 at 3:30 AM


Will the sovereignty of Parliament be one of the victims of the UK’s Brexit referendum vote? The reclamation of the sovereignty of Parliament was one of the main demands of the Leave campaign yet that side’s victory seems likely to mean not its reclamation,but its termination.


Last Sunday NI Secretary Theresa Villiers seemed to think otherwise when she reminded BBC viewers that only the Westminster Parliament could repeal the legislation under which the UK joined the EU.


“Obviously Parliament is sovereign” she declared “Ultimately it is Parliament's decision whether we repeal the 1972 European Communities Act or whether we don't."

Yet the Prime Minister had the day before said “the British people have voted to leave the European Union and their will must be respected...the will of the British people is an instruction that must be delivered’.

If Parliament is sovereign, it cannot be instructed to do anything. On Wednesday Arlene Foster was also on TV telling us ‘the decision has been taken”.


On the same day Ms Villiers seemed to have changed her mind. She assured us - "The decision has been made - the people of the UK have voted to leave the EU. That decision is going to be respected.”

That decision is surely one for a sovereign parliament itself to make. The European Referendum Act of 2015 does not make the outcome legally binding: the poll was,, presumably, ‘advisory’, so it is up to the Government to get Parliamentary approval for any decision.

Mr Cameron cannot speak for Parliament. So he, or his successor, will have to ask the House of Commons to endorse the referendum decision. Up to now a very clear majority in the Commons have resolutely opposed Brexit, with many of them arguing that it would be contrary to the national interests of the UK, disastrously so.

Can, or should, a sovereign Parliament humble itself to the extent of approving something which a majority of its members are convinced is against the national interest, and against any mandate they may have received at their election? Can, or should they, accept an instruction to do so, even if it comes from ‘the people’?

The referendum did result in a clear if narrow vote for Leave, in a surprisingly large turn out. But in fact only 38% of ‘the people’ (the total electorate) voted to Leave, with about 34% to Remain. Does that constitute a mandate for the biggest constitutional change in 43 years? The campaign itself was divisive both in terms of the geographical result, and in the readiness of many campaigners to resort to extravagant claims and allegations. Almost every vox pop revealed that many voters insisted they could not understand the EU, or the arguments.


Since the vote, the likelihood of Scotland seeking, and gaining independence has increased, and fears have arisen over the impact of Brexit on the peace process in Northern Ireland. The reaction of currency and stock markets to the vote have tended to support the gloomier forecasts on the economy.

Last year a committee of the House of Commons produced a report on options for UK constitutional reform, including a proposal that any constitutional change would need to be approved by a majority of people voting in a referendum and by two thirds of members of parliament. The Brexit vote would not have met this requirement.

If MPs abandon their personal convictions that exit from Europe is a bad thing for the UK and endorse Brexit they will bring both themselves and the Westminster Parliament into disrepute.

The idea that a referendum is some higher form of democracy is false. It often asks for a simple answer to a complex question of which the majority of voters cannot have detailed knowledge. This one was particularly inapt in that in that it invited rejection of a long-standing fundamental policy, without any indication as to what would replace it.

The strength of parliamentary democracy lies in the ability of parliaments to explore, research, debate and, in the end, determine where the public good lies. That is why in the modern world we have professional full-time politicians, why public money goes to fund parties, to employ researchers, to engage the electorate.

This is not, as is glibly asserted, elitism. It does not always work, but it makes for a degree of informed debate and constant dialogue between opposing political principles. (Not much of any of this was evident in the referendum campaign.) If Parliament gets something wrong, ‘the people’ can always elect a new one.

MPs should reflect on Edmund Burke’s speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774:

“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement, and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

A refusal by Parliament to confirm the referendum decision would cause uproar, confusion and uncertainty. But we have that already. And even if it led to another election, the dust would have settled in a time considerably shorter than that likely to be consumed in negotiating an exit from the EU.


Categories: Brexit

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1 Comment

Reply NMunsterman
2:38 AM on November 21, 2016 
I was very interested to read your letter to "The Irish Times" this morning 21.11.2016 which was thought-provoking . In particular I was very interested to read the following :
"I am not a unionist. If union with a genuinely inclusive Irish state was offered tomorrow, I would vote for it"
I would be very interested to learn what would your "shopping-list" look like in order to accept a United Ireland. Thank you very much in advance.