US congressman Ritchie Neal says Northern Ireland Protocol dispute 'a manufactured issue'

The leader of a delegation of visiting US politicians has suggested the dispute about the Northern Ireland protocol appears to be a "manufactured" issue and could be "ironed out quickly".

Congressman Richie Neal was speaking in Dublin following meetings with the President of Ireland and the Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney.

He is on a four-day visit to the Republic and Northern Ireland with the US House of Representatives' Ways and Means Committee, which he chairs.He has already visited London for talks with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

Last week she outlined plans to scrap parts of the protocol.

"The protocol dispute seems to me to be a manufactured issue," Mr Neal said.

"I have on this delegation people who are experts at trade and they also would confirm that they think these issues on the trade front, if that's really the dispute, could be ironed out quickly."

He has also claimed "only 7%" of voters in the Assembly election cast the vote on the issue of the protocol.

Unionists reacted angrily to Mr Neal's comments.

DUP Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said, in a tweet: "If Richie Neal believes that distorting the truth about election results and ignoring the totality of unionist opposition to the protocol will safeguard the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement then he merely exposes his own ignorance and prejudice and slavish adherence to Sinn Fein dogma."

UUP Leader Doug Beattie tweeted in response to the comments: "Unbelievable - is this really helping the situation in any way?"

UTVs Political Correspondent Vicki Hawthorne has the latest.

The US delegates have been visiting the Republic of Ireland this week and are also expected to visit Northern Ireland later in the week.

Earlier, Sinn Féin President Mary-Lou McDonald welcomed their intervention.

She said the delegation reiterated to her party the view from the US that the Good Friday Agreement must be protected, that the protocol is here to stay, that there are established avenues to smooth out of the matters of concern and that weeks on from the election the Stormont Executive needs to be formed.

There has been controversy over the protocol since its inception.

Created to avoid the return of checkpoints along the Irish border, after years of negotiation it was agreed that new Brexit regulatory and customs processes would be placed along the Irish Sea.

Both London and Brussels agreed to this as part of the final Brexit negotiations.

Since its implementation in early 2021, the EU and UK have agreed that the protocol does not work as smoothly as it should, and both sides engaged in further negotiations.

Grace periods were introduced for some new Brexit trade rules in the protocol, meaning retailers and exporters do not yet have to adhere to all the checks and standards required.

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