UK Labour Party leader believes united Ireland ‘not in sight’

British Labour leader says health and economy are current priorities in NI

British Labour party leader Keir Starmer hangs a message on the Tree to Remember Jean McConville at the Wave Trauma Centre in Belfast watched by victims of The Troubles. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/PA Wire

British Labour party leader Keir Starmer hangs a message on the Tree to Remember Jean McConville at the Wave Trauma Centre in Belfast watched by victims of The Troubles. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/PA Wire

 

British Labour leader Keir Starmer has ruled out the prospect of a united Ireland in the foreseeable future, saying that such an eventuality is “not in sight”.

During a visit to the North, Mr Starmer also warned Anglo-Irish relations are at an “all-time low”, denounced a proposed amnesty for Troubles-era killings as “wrong” and urged practical solutions to make the Northern Ireland protocol work.

Mr Starmer called on British prime minister Boris Johnson to directly intervene to “de-escalate disorder” during the coming days as tensions simmer over post-Brexit arrangements going into the height of the loyalist marching season.

Speaking to The Irish Times in Derry at the end of his three-day trip, Mr Starmer put himself at odds with Tánaiste Leo Varadkar’s recent remarks that he could see the reunification of Ireland within his lifetime.

“Obviously there is more discussion now about a border poll than there was some years ago,” said Mr Starmer.

“I think it is not in sight, frankly, and the obvious priority at the moment, particularly coming out of the pandemic, is the economy, health and education and longer term issues.

“These are very important priorities and I think a border poll is not in sight. It is not in sight as far as I am concerned.”

During his visit, the Labour leader met leaders of the five political parties in the Stormont Executive and had dinner on Thursday night at the Walled City Brewery in Derry with SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.

‘Loss of trust’

It was a “striking feature” of his discussions that there has been a “loss of trust” in the British government over the ongoing negotiations between London and Brussels regarding the implementation of the protocol, he said.

“The prime minister negotiated the protocol, he knew what he was doing,” said Mr Starmer. “He mis-sold it and now he is not taking responsibility for making it work.”

An EU-UK deal on veterinary standards to cut checks on goods moving between Britain and the North would be a “good starting point” in attempts to make the protocol work, he added.

“I am worried on the back of the discussions I’ve had over the last three days that progress appears to be stalling,” he said.

“A lot of that is down to the loss of trust in the prime minister as an honest broker in this.”

Referring to remarks by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney that London has shown no “generosity” in talks to break the impasse, Mr Starmer suggested there is a “a lack of trust and confidence” in Mr Johnson in Dublin and Brussels.

“When across the board, that trust and confidence is being burnt through, you have got a real problem for the United Kingdom on the international stage,” he said.

“Frankly, if you start discussions and your approach by threatening to breach international law, you send completely the wrong message to partners about how you are going to operate either the protocol or any part of your international obligations.”

On Anglo-Irish relations, he said he feared they were at all-time low.

“This is a close partnership with a very important country, as far as the United Kingdom is concerned, with a shared history and a shared future, but I fear they are at an all time low and responsibility lies at the door of Number 10 (Downing Street).”

Mr Starmer also met representatives of Wave, the North’s largest cross-community organisation supporting victims of the Troubles.

‘Fundamentally wrong’

Last week, the organisation warned Mr Johnson a blanket amnesty for conflict-linked prosecutions would be “fundamentally wrong” and would deepen the anguish and bitterness suffered by survivors.

“It is very clear that their pain and suffering is ongoing,” said Mr Starmer of the victims. “It lives with them, with their children, their siblings and with those that themselves were injured.

“The idea that somebody could sit in Westminster and talk about drawing a line on their pain without even engaging with them about how we find a way forward is something that they feel is deeply disrespectful.

“I strongly believe if we are to find a way forward then the starting point for the prime minister and the secretary of state (for Northern Ireland) is to have discussions with those most affected and that is those that are the victims or the families of the victims of the violence of the Troubles.

“That is where the discussion starts, it doesn’t start in Westminster with a manifesto commitment.”

Mr Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions for England and Wales , said “I firmly believe in the rule of law.”

“Therefore I think a blanket amnesty is wrong and I don’t detect any support for that in Northern Ireland,” he added.

On loyalist tensions over the protocol, Mr Starmer said he was concerned about “what appears to be a pretty fragile situation at the moment, particularly going into what is very often a difficult week in Northern Ireland.”

“All political leaders including the prime minister should do what they can to de-escalate disorder in the coming days,” he said.