March 23, 2018 / 7:03 PM / a month ago

Labour sacks Northern Ireland policy chief over call for second EU referendum

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn sacked his shadow Northern Ireland minister on Friday after he called for a second referendum on Brexit, a move that exposes deep divisions in the party over how and whether to leave the European Union.

FILE PHOTO: Labour leadership candidate, Owen Smith (L), and party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, walk onto the stage before the announcement of the result of the Labour Party leadership election, in Liverpool, Britain September 24, 2016. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo

Owen Smith, who challenged Corbyn for the party leadership in 2016, wrote an article in the Guardian newspaper on Friday urging his party to reopen the question of whether Brexit was the right decision.

Smith said he was sacked for voicing his opinion that Brexit will damage the economy and threaten the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, which ended decades of armed sectarian conflict in the British province.

“Those views are shared by Labour members & supporters and I will continue to speak up for them, and in the interest of our country,” Smith said in a Twitter post.

The sacking exposes the tensions within Labour as the party struggles to balance the demands of its pro-EU supporters mainly in cities and areas of southern England with pro-Brexit voters in its traditional heartlands.

Almost 21 months since the 2016 Brexit vote, Britain and its two largest political parties remain deeply divided over the planned EU exit that Prime Minister Theresa May says will take place on March 29, 2019.

A Labour party official said Smith was sacked for repeatedly breaking from the party’s position on Brexit, including advocating remaining in the EU’s single market.

Over the last few months Labour has diverged from the government’s policy on Brexit. Last month it said it wanted to remain in a customs union with the EU — a move that would make commerce with the bloc easier but limit Britain’s ability to strike future trade deals with non-EU countries.

The government has ruled out staying in any form of the customs union.

Corbyn, who supported the ‘Remain’ campaign in the 2016 referendum but with little enthusiasm, has repeatedly said it is not Labour’s policy to offer Britons a vote on any final deal that Britain negotiates with the EU.

Smith will be replaced by a former Labour minister, Tony Lloyd, who returned to parliament last year after quitting in 2012 to become police and crime commissioner in Manchester.

Some Labour lawmakers criticised Corbyn’s decision to sack Smith.

Pro-EU MP Chuka Umunna said it was “extraordinary” that a shadow cabinet member should be sacked for advocating a Brexit policy that commands the overwhelming support of the party.

“What has happened to our party?,” he said on Twitter.

Peter Hain, a former Northern Ireland minister and Labour lawmaker in the House of Lords, Britain’s unelected upper house, accused Corbyn of carrying out of a “Stalinist purge”.

Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; Editing by Gareth Jones and Catherine Evans

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