Starmer says Labour would scrap proposed law to override NI protocol

UK will present legislation to parliament on Monday to unilaterally revise the post-Brexit trade arrangements

The Labour leader Keir Starmer has said his party will vote against the UK government’s proposed legislation to override parts of the Northern Ireland protocol and would scrap it entirely if in power.

He also confirmed Labour would vote against the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill which would end all Troubles-era prosecutions, civil cases and inquests and offer a conditional amnesty for perpetrators.

Mr Starmer was speaking in Belfast on Friday following meetings with Northern political leaders.

Controversial legislation to unilaterally revoke parts of the Northern Ireland protocol is due to be presented to Parliament on Monday.

The Labour leader called for “give and take” from EU and UK negotiators and said there had to be a “flexible” approach from both sides. He told reporters the UK government’s approach to the protocol was “wrong” and the “issues and challenges” could be “overcome around the negotiating table with statecraft, with high levels of trust.

“It is that high level of trust that is missing with this prime minister and I think he is making a mistake by going down the route of legislation which will breach international law and, actually, I think, be an impediment to the negotiations that, in the end, are going to resolve these difficult issues,” he said.

“We would scrap the legislation and I think there has been an impasse in the negotiations because we haven’t seen the high levels of trust that we need for negotiations like this, not least from our prime minister.

“But also we need give and take on both sides. The EU, as well as the UK, to give and take, to be flexible about the approach.

“I do not think that the remaining issues of the protocol cannot be resolved with a different approach, with that high level of trust, with an honest broker prime minister getting people around the table and negotiating what needs to be negotiated.”

He said Labour would vote against the UK government’s legacy proposals because it did not have support in Northern Ireland.

“If I have learnt anything in the years that I worked here in Northern Ireland and over the 20 years I have been engaged with Northern Ireland, you don’t proceed in Westminster with controversial legislation when it doesn’t have the backing of the political parties, victims’ groups here in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government,” he said.

On Friday morning Mr Starmer met the Alliance leader Naomi Long and the leader of the SDLP, Colum Eastwood.

Mr Eastwood said it was “actually quite refreshing” to have Mr Starmer in Belfast and in Dublin on Thursday “actually having a grown-up in leadership in London engaging properly with political parties here and with the Irish government.

“It’s what’s been missing, frankly, from this British government over the past number of years. What we’ve seen from Boris Johnson has been unilateral action on legacy.

“Now, on Monday, we’re going to see unilateral action on the protocol, having had no conversations with parties here, no conversations with the Irish government, and just taking a wrecking ball to the progress that we’ve had.

“We saw a glimpse over the past couple of days of what Anglo-Irish relationships could be like. It isn’t impossible to have proper relationships, it isn’t impossible to deal with the problems that we face in issues of the past or issues around the protocol.

“All of those things can be dealt with by grown-ups sitting down in a room and having a conversation. If we haven’t learned that over the last 20 years, then I don’t know what we’ve been watching.”

After meeting Mr Starmer in Belfast, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said reform of the Stormont institutions was necessary to prevent single parties such as the DUP from being able to block the formation of a devolved executive.

“The issues with the protocol really do not justify the egregious breach of international law and international trust that the Government are now embarking on via legislation basically at the behest of the DUP,” she said.

“If the Government wants to take some legislation forward so that these institutions here can be restored and that they can do that on a stable footing, they should be looking to reform these institutions in legislation to ensure that no party can hold the institutions to ransom going forward.”

Mrs Long added: “We believe it is crucial that these institutions are reformed, the public have had enough of stop-start government, they have had enough of the cycle of crisis and collapse and we need to put paid to that by changing our institutions to make them fit for purpose.”

Mr Starmer was welcomed to Parliament Buildings by outgoing Stormont Speaker Alex Maskey. He held meetings with DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson and UUP head Doug Beattie in London earlier this week, and met Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald in Belfast on Thursday evening. While in Belfast he is also expected to meet US consul general Paul Narain and go on a walkabout to view changes in the city since the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Starmer worked in Belfast when he was a human rights adviser to the Northern Ireland Policing Board between 2003 and 2007.

In Dublin on Thursday, the UK opposition leader accused the Boris Johnson of taking a “wrecking ball” to relationships with Ireland and the EU with his controversial plan to unilaterally scrap aspects of the post-Brexit trading arrangement.

The contentious government bill is due to be tabled at Westminster on Monday.

On Thursday evening, Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill warned the UK Government against unilateral moves to override the protocol during an address to party members in Belfast.

Ms O’Neill said: “Boris Johnson knows that to gamble the protocol is to breach international law and to jeopardise the British government’s agreement with the EU on their withdrawal and future trading relationship, with colossal political and economic impact.

“The threat of unilateral action by the Tories to legislate and breach international law serves nobody’s interests, anywhere, at any time.”

At the same time, Mr Donaldson was addressing a party meeting in Kilkeel, Co Down, where he said there is a “unity of purpose within unionism in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol”.

He added: “Even opinion polls show that the vast majority of unionists support our stance that the protocol must be resolved before devolution can be restored.”

The DUP has refused to allow the powersharing Assembly to meet or an executive to be formed as part of its protest against the protocol, which has created a trade border in the Irish Sea.

Additional reporting - PA

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times