Clearer information is needed on the Northern Ireland protocol so that people "don't listen to community propaganda" but instead make an "informed choice", a Belfast community worker has told a Westminster committee.
Eileen Weir, of the Shankill Women's Centre in west Belfast, was one of six women who gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on female experiences of the protocol and peacebuilding on Wednesday.
They told the committee of MPs that in their experience there was confusion rather than opposition to the protocol and there had been a “real absence” of female voices in discussions around Brexit.
Protests have been held in parts of Northern Ireland against the protocol, which is opposed by the unionist parties because it places an economic border in the Irish Sea. There have been warnings from sections of loyalism that opposition to the protocol is so strong it could lead to violence.
Ms Weir said “community propaganda” about the Northern Ireland protocol was “rife” and there was “a lot of confusion.”
Women from a loyalist community background were “openly saying to me they don’t understand it ... I explain to them about the single market and trade, and they’re going, ‘I didn’t know that was in it’,” she said, adding that people needed “hope within these communities”.
While the protocol “needs fixed, it’s not good in parts of it, but we’re only hearing the negative, we’re not hearing the positive,” she said.
Elaine Crory, good relations co-ordinator with the Women's Resource and Development Agency (WRDA), said that in research carried out by the organisation and in the course of community work "people are not saying to us that they oppose the protocol.
“What they are saying, at worst, is that they don’t understand the protocol, and that’s not the same thing at all.”
Part of the reason they did not understand it, she said, was because it was being “used as a cudgel, it is being propagandised. People are claiming it is all kinds of things that it is in fact not.
“When you hold a microphone out, and you point it directly at the people who oppose it for all sorts of reasons, which is their right, you get the impression that everyone opposes it when in fact they don’t,” she said.
Rachel Powell, a women's sector lobbyist with the WRDA, told the committee that those who lived in rural border communities, "are not represented in this very vocal, anti-Northern Ireland protocol rhetoric that is happening now."
She said a recent survey of women from across Northern Ireland showed they were more concerned about the impact of Brexit on human rights than the protocol.
The main theme, she said, was "around socioeconomic rights and how there are major threats to these but that this has been lost in the discourse around the Northern Ireland". She added that the women said they did "not have very much faith" in either the UK government or the Northern Ireland Assembly to match the protections provided by the EU.