NI political leaders divided over Government call to renegotiate protocol

Unionist leaders in Northern Ireland have welcomed the UK Government’s call to renegotiate elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol as a “significant and welcome first step”.

But nationalists have reacted with anger, accusing Westminster of “shamelessly ignoring” its international treaty obligations.

Brexit minister Lord Frost said on Wednesday “we cannot go on as we are”  and called for a “new balance” over the implementation of the protocol, part of the Brexit divorce deal agreed by the UK and Brussels which effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods.

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The protocol was put in place to ensure there would be no hard border with Ireland, but it has instead effectively placed a trade barrier in the Irish Sea.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the Commons: “We welcome the acceptance from the Government that the protocol is not working, that it is causing real harm to our economy in Northern Ireland and it is simply not sustainable.

“The statement is a welcome and significant and important first step.”

Sir Jeffrey added: “Tinkering around the edges simply doesn’t work and I trust the EU will approach new negotiations in good faith and recognise the need to enter into new arrangements that remove the Irish Sea border.”

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But Sinn Fein’s Brexit spokesman Declan Kearney said the UK Government could not be allowed to renege on international law.

He added: “The British Government has agreed and ratified all elements of the protocol with the European Commission. It should now stop the evasion, and get on with its implementation.

“It is not acceptable for the Tories to adopt an a la carte approach towards the protocol, to rewrite history and now attempt a renegotiation.

“If the protocol is to achieve its goals, then it needs to be implemented fully, not hollowed out by the British Government.”

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Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said it was welcome to see movement in the direction of finding “pragmatic, workable solutions”.

“Solutions need to be found and intransigence will only serve to harm Northern Ireland.

“If everyone is serious about protecting Northern Ireland and the Belfast Agreement, then we need to see space created for serious conversations around these proposals to take place.

“The Irish Sea border is causing serious problems and cannot be ignored. We will keep pushing for solutions to be found.”

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But SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the Government’s statement was the “latest in a car crash attempt to distance themselves from an agreement they negotiated, campaigned for and signed up to”.

The Foyle MP added: “It is a shameless position based on political expedience rather than providing the stability that people, businesses and communities in Northern Ireland need.

“There are very clearly issues with the operation of the protocol.

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“But rather than pursuing the obvious solution to Irish Sea checks acknowledged by businesses operating in the current environment, which is an SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) deal with the European Union, this government has decided to prioritise trade deals with other countries.

Alliance Party MP Stephen Farry said the statement was “full of bluster and a re-writing of history”.

He added: “It creates more uncertainty and instability. The Government is choosing confrontation rather than adopting the obvious solution on the table which is a comprehensive veterinary agreement.”