Boris Johnson’s government is using Northern Ireland as a lever to gain advantage over the EU, Alliance leader Naomi Long has told a parliamentary committee at Westminster.
Ms Long told the House of Lords constitution committee that Northern Ireland was “not so much an afterthought as a political football” for Downing Street.
“I don’t believe the current government negotiates with Northern Ireland’s best interests at heart, but I do believe that they use us for leverage over the European Union,” she said. “And I do believe that Northern Ireland has become essentially a lever rather than the priority in terms of the protocol.”
Britain and the EU are negotiating changes to how the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol operates after the European Commission said most checks on goods moving from Britain to the North could be eliminated.
Britain is demanding that the European Court of Justice (ECJ) should no longer have a role in the protocol’s governance, but Ms Long said her constituents were more interested in practical issues.
“No one in my constituency has contacted me specifically concerned with respect to the sovereignty issues around the protocol, the European Court of Justice or those issues. Those are not the issues that businesses bring to us daily. Those are not the issues that are causing practical challenges.”
Ms Long, who is Stormont’s justice minister, said the strain Brexit had created in the relationship between Dublin and London was affecting political relationships in Northern Ireland as well as North-South co-operation.
“It’s a bit like being the child of a divorce at this point where the parents are not speaking and the children are essentially vying for attention. It’s not a pleasant place to be,” she said.
Later representatives of Britain’s pharmaceutical industry told the House of Lords subcommittee on the protocol that the EU’s latest proposals go a long way towards resolving the issue of access to medicines in Northern Ireland.
They said some aspects of the proposal needed clarification and others could be improved, but they urged the British government to work with the European Commission to reach an agreed solution.
Earlier, the chief commissioner of the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland said political disagreements and an excessive focus on orange and green had contributed to a failure to enhance legal protections for minorities.
Geraldine McGahey told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that the North was in the “dark ages” on equality legislation compared to other parts of the UK.
“We are so caught up in orange and green issues and trying to maintain peace in line with the Good Friday agreement that the focus does not spread out over other issues in our society,” she said.
“We get to a certain point in terms of consultation or promoting legislative reform, and then our parties can’t agree and it gets put on the back burner.”