'Real needs' moving people away from Northern Ireland protocol issue says Belfast community worker

By Judith Hill

A community leader in east Belfast has said feelings over the protocol within unionism are more nuanced than is being presented politically.

Rev Brian Anderson, from East Belfast Mission, believes there is some level of fear about expressing any alternative views on the protocol.

He insists poverty and the cost-of-living crisis should be the number one issue driving politicians.

"My sense is while the protocol may have been the major issue that was identified up until the election, families' needs, the real needs, are now moving people away from the protocol being the priority, to the family. We need to overcome poverty," Rev Anderson said.

But other community leaders continue to call for the scrapping of the protocol to be kept front and centre of political debate.

Orange Order Grand Secretary Mervyn Gibson said: "I don't think they (the DUP) are under any pressure, it's up to the Government to get the reading over and done with and get the legislation enacted.

"I think voters have made it clear they don't want them to go back until it's sorted."

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has indicated that the new legislation is enough for them but that a return to the Executive will depend on the bill becoming law. The News Letter's Political Editor Henry McDonald doesn't believe the DUP is about to blink on this: "The DUP are under a lot of pressure from the Government... I think there's a fairly universal sense of resistance to not bow to the pressure though. They're once Boris bitten, twice shy."

The UK government has said it wants to pass the Bill through the Commons by the summer recess.

While the EU has warned there will be retaliatory actions if the legislation is passed.

Meanwhile, the Irish Foreign Affairs Minister has said the relationship between the UK and Irish governments must go back to being one of "partnership as opposed to provocation".

Simon Coveney warned of a "very difficult space" if negotiations around issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol were not resolved.

Last week, the British Government tabled a Bill at Westminster that would empower ministers to override much of the contentious post-Brexit trading regime it had agreed with the EU in the withdrawal talks.

Addressing the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg on Thursday, Mr Coveney said this approach would cause more problems than it would solve.

He said: "The way not to proceed is for the British Government to continue on the road that it is currently travelling on which is to unilaterally introduce legislation to disapply international law.

"I think that is going to cause a lot more problems than it solves."

His comments came as his UK counterpart, Liz Truss, said legislation relating to the protocol was "both necessary and lawful", warning "we simply can't allow the situation to drift".

Ms Truss, UK Foreign Secretary, told MPs in London on Tuesday "we remain open to negotiations with the EU", but added "in the absence of the EU being willing to change the protocol, we are pressing ahead with legislation".

Mr Coveney described outstanding issues as "absolutely resolvable" if both parties came to the negotiating table in the spirit of partnership and friendship, but indicated this was not currently the case.

He said: "We need the British Government as a partner and at the moment we don't have that if I'm honest.

"So the peace process on the island of Ireland has always worked best when the British and Irish governments worked together. We're willing to compromise and provide a platform for both dialogue and compromise for the political parties in Northern Ireland, which have a deeply divisive past.

"And we need to get back to that space of partnership as opposed to provocation, which unfortunately is the space we're in right now."

Mr Coveney said Ireland had recently been ranked the world's third most peaceful country by the Global Peace Index and that this showed how well the Good Friday Agreement had worked for the whole island.

He added: "We dare not imperil it, which is why we have reacted with such concern at the unilateral actions and legislation of the UK Government in recent weeks."

Ms Truss told the House of Commons: "We have been clear with the EU that the Northern Ireland Protocol needs to change in order to uphold the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, ensure that we have free flow of goods from east to west and also protect the north-south relationship.

"Our preference is a negotiated solution, but in the absence of the EU being willing to change the protocol, we are pressing ahead with legislation."

The DUP has blocked the establishment of a new ministerial executive following last month's Assembly election in protest at the protocol, which has created economic barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O'Neill, who would be in line to become the party's first first minister if an executive was restored, said the DUP's block on power sharing was "unfathomable" given the pressures facing families in the region.

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