Dispute over NI protocol appears ‘manufactured’ – Richard Neal

UK overriding Brexit deal would be act of ‘bad faith’, says Democrat US congressman

US congressman Richard Neal said the dispute over Northern Ireland's Brexit deal appears to be a "manufactured issue" and that trade problems around it "could be ironed out quickly".

Speaking to reporters alongside Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney after a reception in Dublin, Mr Neal said the Government, the EU and the US congressional delegation he was leading on a visit to the Republic and Northern Ireland this week all wanted to find a solution.

“Now it’s up to London to help us all find a solution,” said the high-ranking US Democrat.

Asked what motivation there might be to manufacture a crisis, Mr Neal said: “I hope this is not about domestic politics.”

DUP MLA Diane Dodds said Mr Neal's suggestion that unionist objections to the protocol were "manufactured" was "outrageous", when more than 40 per cent of people elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly had opposed the post-Brexit arrangements.

"The protocol has not enjoyed the support of a single unionist MP or MLA since it was forced upon us by Westminster and Brussels, " the MLA for Upper Bann said.

She has written to all members of the US congressional ways and means committee objecting to the remarks by Mr Neal, whom she said “has been more of a hindrance than a help to progress”.

In an address to the Seanad, Mr Neal said the “number one priority for the US” was “to ensure that the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland is preserved and reinforced”.

The Democrat said Brexit posed “unprecedented challenges for the island of Ireland” and warned that “institutional memory in the UK” was being lost.

Mr Neal said this was a “worrying and uncertain time”, and that the US delegation was interested in “protecting the precious peace” in Northern Ireland.

“Any incautious move to undo the protocol would put at risk this durable agreement that we helped to create,” he said.

The UK government is planning to publish legislation in the coming weeks that would unilaterally scrap parts of the Northern Ireland protocol on the basis that the DUP is refusing form a new Northern Irish power-sharing government over its opposition to the post-Brexit trading arrangements.

The British government and unionists say the protocol is adding an unnecessary burden to trade between Northern Ireland and Britain.

The protocol was the means to avoid imposing a new trade and customs border on the island of Ireland following the UK’s exit from the EU, through placing checks between Northern Ireland and Britain – a move unionists say damages Northern Ireland’s economy and undermines its place in the UK.

‘Legitimate concerns’

Mr Coveney said the EU can respond to the “legitimate concerns” raised by unionists over the implementation of the protocol “in a significant way” through partnership with the UK.

“But we need a partner for partnership,” he said.

If the UK was, like the EU, willing to show flexibility and both could “meet in the middle” and implement the protocol with “significant flexibility and pragmatism”, then the EU could respond.

If the British government decided to impose a solution that they “regard as the correct one, without partnership”, then that would “cause a lot more problems than it would solve”, he said.

Mr Neal, chairman of the powerful US House of Representatives ways and means committee, is leading a delegation to Ireland and Northern Ireland as the EU and UK remain at odds over the implementation of the 2019 deal that covers post-Brexit trading rules in the North.

Speaking to The Irish Times earlier, Mr Neal said the UK government’s plan to override the protocol would be an act of “bad faith” and would send “the wrong message”.

Mr Neal said the UK government was still at this stage only “planning” to pass legislation to dismantle parts of the protocol and there was “still room” for negotiations with the EU.

Belfast Agreement

A key ally of US president Joe Biden, Mr Neal said the issues were "relatively small" compared with the challenges overcome with the 1998 Belfast Agreement, Northern Ireland's peace deal.

Mr Neal said “the path discovered 24 years ago” to reach that agreement was “eminently relevant at the moment” to finding a solution to the protocol.

He said he believed that some of the concern around the protocol was “out of proportion”, given that only a small minority of voters in Northern Ireland had cast their votes in the recent Assembly elections based on the protocol, when other issues had superseded discussion about it.

Improvements to the protocol “should be fully embraced” by both sides, he said, warning that unilateral action by the UK government would raise questions about its motives.

“I don’t think that there ought to be an arbitrary decision to abandon the protocol without negotiation. I think abrogating an international treaty is not only bad faith but it sends considerably the wrong message.”

Asked what that message was, Mr Neal said: “It suggest that expediency takes place overall, including international agreements. International agreements are based upon not just the signing of the document, but the fact that everybody has to find a path forward.”

Mr Neal and his delegation, numbering nine people in total, will travel on to Northern Ireland on Wednesday.