It's not too late... Britain must vote again
Published 28/06/2016 | 02:30
In the Irish and British parliamentary tradition, making binding law is taken so seriously that it must go through two houses of parliament and a number of stages in each before the die is cast. This is the democratic due process.
Ireland has a written Constitution; this is the basic law of the State and to change the Constitution, the Houses of the Oireachtas must pass a Bill, which, unlike normal legislation, cannot be referred to the Supreme Court by the President. The Bill goes directly to the people, who vote on it as the ultimate legislators in this type of law. If the people reject a proposed constitutional amendment, the Oireachtas may try to assess the real concerns of the people and, as they are authorised by the people to do under the Constitution, put the question to the people again.
This happened with, for example, divorce proposals and two EU referenda (Nice and Lisbon).
There are those who considered it undemocratic to put the question again but the proof of the pudding is in the eating and the public took a different decision when asked a second time, after reflection and clarification.
In the Westminster model, which, in many respects, the Irish system followed, there is no written constitution and parliament is supreme. Unlike the Irish model, the people of the United Kingdom have not made any binding decision and the parliamentary due process that normally accompanies such serious binding decisions has not been followed. Yet the recent referendum vote was so close that if 1pc of the voters were to change sides, the outcome would be different.
Indeed, the Leave side said during the campaign that if there was a narrow victory for the Remain side, they would go on campaigning for another vote.
Politicians are often criticised for being evasive but when they speak the plain truth, they are often criticised for being undiplomatic.
I once stated publicly that expecting the people to understand the contents of the treaties we sometimes put before them is to expect the almost impossible. I was howled at for days, but it is true.
Is it the truth that the majority of British people understand the consequences of leaving the EU? That they have assessed this carefully and after due process and are certain that this momentous course is the right one?
Is it possible, even likely, that at least 1pc of these saw an opportunity to punish politicians for some local or national shortcoming not related to Europe?
Polls showed that 60pc of all voters, Leave and Remain, believed the Remain side would win.
Is it possible in these circumstances that a few percent voted Leave believing that Remain would win anyway and there would be no negative consequences? Let's be truthful, the answers to these questions is that it is possible and perhaps even likely.
Can we truly say that the decision has been democratically made? The answer to this is speculative.
Unlike the Irish process, there is no established way of determining if this is the final word, but there is an untried way.
Would it be too much to ask British MPs to put their political lives on the line by submitting themselves for re-election on this issue?
If outgoing MPs and other candidates were to declare in a general election campaign where they stand and how they will vote in parliament on the Remain or Leave issue after an election, the checks and balances so far omitted could be restored. Then there would be due process.
If the Remain side had a majority in parliament after an election, then the people would have truly decided; the very same rule would apply to the Leave side and nobody could then claim that the real view of the public had not been ascertained.
It used to be possible for a prime minister to obtain a dissolution of parliament at any time. With the passing of the Fixed Term Act 2011, as a deal to get the Liberal Democrats to join the Conservatives in a coalition, parliaments must now last for five years, with some exceptions. One of these exceptions is that a two-thirds majority of MPs can agree to a dissolution.
If British Prime Minister David Cameron could get a sufficient majority of MPs to put the public interest ahead of their own narrow ambitions, this process could be triggered. Another course could be to ask parliament to amend the Act to allow for a dissolution on this issue.
This month marks the 76th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Though other battles were lost, if this battle had not been won, we would all be speaking German now. British leadership saved Europe.
We need that spirit of leadership now. Mr Cameron could go down in history as the man who forced MPs to put the public interest first. This would also help restore confidence in politics.
Somehow, I suspect he would find that the opinion of the people has not been ascertained. If he has the courage of Winston Churchill, the British prime minister can show that though one battle has been lost, Britain can still win the war.
The British people deserve no less.
Gay Mitchell is a former MEP and minister for European affairs