NI Secretary Brandon Lewis and US congressional delegation discuss protocol dispute at Hillsborough

Brandon Lewis met the US delgation at Hillsborough Credit: PA

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has met members of a US congressional delegation at Hillsborough Castle on Wednesday evening.

Chairman of the United States House of Representatives' Committee on Ways and Means Richard Neal is leading the delegation that has met political leaders in Ireland, the UK and Belgium.

On Tuesday, Mr Neal was criticised by unionists for claiming the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol seemed "manufactured" and that it was "up to London" to help find a solution.

After the meeting, Mr Lewis said he and the delegation shared "a deep commitment" to the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Northern Ireland.

"I emphasised the importance of addressing protocol issues, as well as the need for NI parties to form an Executive," Mr Lewis said.

Mr Lewis was to outline the "significant" problems the UK Government has with the protocol that he said Northern Ireland businesses have registered with him and UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, and the need for the EU to have a more flexible mandate to address these.

He was also to stress that the UK Government's "firm" preference was for a negotiated solution with the EU.

Speaking earlier on Wednesday, Mr Lewis said: "My top priority right now is to see a return to fully functioning devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. This is crucial for NI to embrace its full potential and, to support this, we must resolve the issues with the protocol.

"The UK Government's proposed legislation offers solutions to the issues caused by the protocol and has been designed to help protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.

"Our legislation would remove all customs processes for goods moving within the United Kingdom, so that moving goods between Belfast and Liverpool is no different to moving goods between Birmingham and Liverpool - as it should be.

"We are not suggesting a removal of the protocol. Our legislation will protect the parts that work and fix those that don't so that we can deliver for all of the people of Northern Ireland."

The US congressional delegation met with Foreign Secretary Truss and the Secretary of State for International Trade Anne-Marie Trevelyan during a visit to London last weekend.

On Monday and Tuesday, Mr Neal and his colleagues met with Ireland's President Michael D Higgins, Taoiseach Micheal Martin, and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney.

Mr Neal became the first member of the US Congress to address Ireland's upper house, Seanad Eireann, on Tuesday afternoon, and received a round of applause from Irish senators when he said that families on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland needed answers and closure from the pain inflicted during The Troubles.

The US congressional delegation, made up of four Democrats and four Republicans, is in Northern Ireland on Wednesday and Thursday to meet with political leaders.