Northern Irish politicians' backs 'full of dagger holes' say Lords as protocol bill clears committee

The House of Lords is scrutinising the Northern Ireland Protocol bill.

Northern Irish politicians' backs are 'full of dagger holes' because UK ministers have not trusted them to join post-Brexit talks, peers have heard.

Former Ulster Unionist Party leader Lord Empey made the claim as he urged the Government to give Stormont's policy-makers a seat at the negotiating table over Northern Ireland's post-Brexit trade arrangements.

As the House of Lords continued line-by-line scrutiny of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, Lord Empey suggested that bringing devolved leaders into talks between the UK and the EU could end the standoff at the Stormont Assembly.

The Northern Ireland Protocol is an agreement aimed at avoiding a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, but it has created economic barriers on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, causing resentment and anger among many unionists and loyalists.

The DUP has refused to return to power sharing in the Assembly until decisive action is taken over the protocol.

The UK Government has vowed to secure changes to the agreement, either with a negotiated compromise with the EU or through the Bill, which would empower ministers to scrap the arrangements without the approval of Brussels.

Lord Empey told peers: "The people who are most directly affected and people who have a direct responsibility in the implementation of any of these processes - ie, politicians in Northern Ireland - are spectators in a matter that most directly affects them."

The UUP peer claimed it was "not unusual" for devolved leaders to join UK ministers on visits to the EU when the country was still a member of the bloc, and called on the Government to "adapt that principle" for the protocol talks.

He added: "One minister - he meant well, I have no doubt - said a week or two ago, 'Leave it to us, we have got your back here, we will look after it for you'.

"Well, I have to say, with the greatest respect, we know all about that. Our backs are that full of dagger holes that we know all about it.

"We will only believe what we see and what we hear ourselves. Bring our politicians into the picture, bring them to the table with you, so they are not your enemy.

"I accept, of course, we are dealing with an international issue and foreign affairs and related matters are not devolved. I get that.

"But have we not enough flexibility that we can bring people along as part of our delegation so they can see persons and papers?"

Lord Empey claimed the political class in Northern Ireland was "out to lunch", adding: "We are not contributing anything to the solutions because of the standoff in Stormont.

"I do not want to see Sinn Fein's argument that Northern Ireland is a failed political entity justified and that is the risk that we are taking.

"One of the ways of getting the Assembly going again is to engage the people who have to operate the outcome of the negotiations so that they are part of the solution, they have ownership of the solution."

Labour peer Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick joined calls for Northern Ireland's devolved leaders to be party to the negotiations.

She told the Lords: "Negotiations only succeed in Northern Ireland when the parties are sitting around the table with the UK and the EU.

"So I would ask the Government in their discussions with the European Union to try to exercise where possible a degree of flexibility that will facilitate such discussions taking place in a more all-encompassing manner."

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