NI protocol dispute 'not a real crisis' says Congressman Neal on Stormont visit

An American politician leading an influential US delegation on a visit to Northern Ireland has said the protocol issue was a "problem" but not a real crisis".

Congressman Richard Neal was speaking following meetings with the five larger Stormont parties.

"To describe the protocol issue as a crisis is inconsistent with the success we've had over 25 years of the Good Friday Agreement," he said.

"I still don't think it's a crisis. I think it's a problem to be solved, duly negotiated - much of it emanates from Brussels and London but it should include the people of Northern Ireland in the discussion and deliberation."

He added: "I think that every time we simply use the word crisis to describe everything, then we forget what a real crisis means, and I continue to believe this is not a real crisis."

Responding to unionist criticism over his description of the Brexit trade dispute as a "manufactured issue", Mr Neal acknowledged he could have "picked a more artful term to describe the now impasse that has been reached".

He added: "But anybody that would suggest that it was maliciously intended would be misguided."

Earlier, the DUP leader blasted the visit as “the most undiplomatic to these shores”.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson slated the language used by Mr Neal as “unhelpful”.

He said his comments on the protocol dispute being "manufactured" displayed "an alarming ignorance of the concerns of unionism”.

However, Sir Jeffrey said he heard a “more realistic approach” during his party’s meeting with the delegation at Stormont on Thursday.

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said he felt the delegation “now understand the issues at hand”.

“I think they get it now but we will know if they get it if they come out and say, ‘We now understand’, because we made that point quite heavily to them,” he said.

The senior US Congressmen led his delegation in meetings with all Stormont parties on Thursday.

Congressman Richard Neal and members of the Congressional delegation with Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill Credit: second right

Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said the attention was to be welcomed.

“We have had a very good meeting with them in terms of our shared objective, which is to have this Executive and Assembly up and running, supporting people through the cost-of-living crisis, addressing our health service needs,” she said.

“Very much welcome their commitment and we share their objective in terms of their support for the Good Friday Agreement.

“There is work to be done but I think the attention from this delegation is something that is very much to be welcomed.”

The Alliance Party's deputy leader Stephen Farry MP said that his party had asked Rep. Neal to encourage the EU to be "as flexible as possible" in trying to overcome the issues around the protocol.

Mr Farry said that while he shares the EU's frustration with the UK government's position, he had asked the delegation to ensure the EU is a "partner" in finding solutions to the protocol row.

Meanwhile, Sir Jeffrey revealed his party confronted Mr Neal about his use of the term “planter” to refer to unionists in Northern Ireland.

He said his party colleague Jonathan Buckley told Mr Neal he is also a planter and that comparisons were made between Northern Ireland today and one of the most seismic events in US history, the Boston Tea Party.

Sir Jeffrey said that when tea chests were pushed into the harbour in Boston in 1773, the mantra was no taxation without representation.

“And I reminded Congressman Neal and his colleagues that this too is our mantra: that today Northern Ireland is subjected to laws and taxes into which it has no say, that not a single member elected to this Assembly can influence many of the laws that now oversee how we conduct trade in our country because they are imposed by the European Union, and there is no democratic accountability to this institution or any democratic institution in this country,” he said.

“So I reminded Congressman Neal that the principle of no taxation without representation applies to Northern Ireland and we need to sort that out and until we sort it out and see the solution being put in place we cannot make the progress that we want to see.”

Congressman Richard Neal speaks to the media at Parliament Buildings, Stormont in Belfast, with the Congressional delegation Credit: David Young/PA

Following their meeting with the delegation, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he outlined the impact of Brexit, how the protocol was needed and the need for the institutions to be restored. He said the meeting was "productive".

“We are fortunate that some of the most high-ranking political leaders in the world take an active and engaged interest in the stability of our institutions," he said.

"Rather than seeking offence or courting grievance, the DUP should be using the influence that affords all of us to build a better, more prosperous society for everyone. The politics of boycott has served no one. “I acknowledge that unionism has a problem with the protocol. But the challenges we face are too important, they affect too many families, to allow government to be mothballed as part of a political strop. The restoration of the institutions should happen on Monday when the Assembly is recalled and MLAs should get back to work.” Earlier, as he arrived at Parliament Buildings, Mr Neal said Northern Ireland has endured far more grim moments than the current dispute over post-Brexit trade.

Power sharing is on ice after the DUP refused to re-establish a devolved executive following the recent election in protest at arrangements that have created economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Unionist politicians have reacted angrily to remarks by Mr Neal in Dublin on Tuesday when he claimed the protocol dispute was a “manufactured issue”.

Standing in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings, Mr Neal told reporters: “I have been in this hall many times, through far more grim moments than the one we’re currently witnessing, and I think that the role that we’ve (the US) offered, the dimension that we brought to bear, is overwhelmingly over all of these years been very helpful.

“So, looking forward to what all the parties have to say.”

The Congressional delegation visited Londonderry on Wednesday Credit: David Young/PA

Mr Neal also spoke of the need to “honour” the 25th anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement next year.

“It’s an extraordinary success story,” he added.

Stormont is the latest stop on the US politician’s ongoing visit to the island of Ireland.

The delegation has also held meetings in London and Brussels during its protocol fact-finding mission.

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