Challenges around NI protocol can be negotiated, US delegation leader says

Nine-strong team from the US House of Representatives visiting Ireland

The head of a US congressional delegation visiting Britain and Ireland has expressed confidence the "challenges" in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol "can be negotiated" – but warned the US will be "unwavering as is necessary" in its support of the Belfast Agreement.

Top Democrat Richard Neal is overseeing a nine-strong team from the US House of Representatives' ways and means committee on the trip and is currently in Ireland for a four-day trade visit.

The delegates will travel to the North this week to meet with leaders of the main political parties there as the Stormont impasse continues.

The North is without a functioning powersharing government following the recent Assembly elections after the DUP refused to elect a Speaker in its protest at the protocol, the part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement which avoided a hard Border on the island of Ireland by placing a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea. One of the aims of the protocol was to secure peace on the island by avoiding a hard Border. However, the protocol has become the source of political tensions among some unionists, and between the EU and UK amid outstanding issues over its implementation.

Speaking in Co Kerry on Sunday, Mr Neal admitted he had had "some very hard conversations" with the UK government at the weekend after its foreign secretary, Liz Truss, last week signalled plans to overhaul unilaterally parts of the Brexit deal relating to Northern Ireland.

He described the US as a “guarantor of the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement”.

“We have made the argument that the Good Friday Agreement has worked and has worked quite well. We don’t want to see it disturbed,” the congressman said.

“We’re now coming up on the 25th anniversary [of the peace agreement] . . . and recall that everybody gave up something to put to rest the longest standing political dispute of the western world.

“So I recounted that before secretary Truss yesterday . . . We don’t want to see anything disturbed and we intend to be as unwavering as is necessary.”

Mr Neal said he believed any issues in relation to the protocol could be resolved through talks.

"That was the clear message from Brussels, they're ready to negotiate," he said.

“A clear message that we offered to the UK: if they want to negotiate and you say you want to negotiate, there should be negotiation.”

He added that the US government’s views are clear: “President [Joe] Biden, speaker [Nancy] Pelosi and I have made our position known. Nothing can jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement or any sort of return to a hard Border.

“. . . Whatever challenges that are offered by the protocol, we think can be negotiated.”

Ms Truss met with the US delegation on Saturday ahead of its trip to Ireland and said the UK had a “cast-iron commitment” to the Belfast Agreement.

‘Economic tsunami’

Meanwhile, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said that implementing the protocol in full would result in "an economic tsunami" hitting Northern Ireland.

Responding to a tweet from Brendan Boyle, a member of the US House of Representatives, Mr Donaldson claimed the act of calling for the full implementation of the trade deal was “such folly”.

DUP Assembly member Gordon Lyons said his party looked forward to meeting the bipartisan congressional delegation, but that US representatives "must recognise" that the protocol had undermined the Belfast Agreement, which he claimed representatives had "continually" misunderstood.

“It is high time the American administration recognised the fundamental importance of securing the support of both unionists and nationalists,” he said.

“Without such support, devolution cannot function.”

On Sunday, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long told Sky News that she understood that border issues were “difficult” for unionists, but that it was an “inevitability as a consequence of Brexit”. “Unfortunately, Brexit put borders and border friction back on the agenda, and that is very difficult for the very delicate ecology of Northern Ireland to deal with,” she said. Additional reporting: PA