People in Northern Ireland are being used as a pawn in the ongoing stand off between the UK and EU over a Brexit trade deal, Michelle O’Neill has warned.
Stormont’s deputy First Minister said citizens and businesses needed an end to the uncertainty around what will face them next year.
The Sinn Fein vice president told the Assembly in Belfast that she and DUP First Minister Arlene Foster were committed to working together to achieve the best outcome for the region, despite their political differences over Brexit.
Ms O’Neill’s comment come amid the recent controversy over the UK Government’s bid to use domestic legislation to override elements of the Withdrawal Treaty, namely the Northern Ireland protocol on post-Brexit trading arrangements.
“It’s in all our interests to minimise disruption to trade,” the deputy First Minister told MLAs.
“We want to see frictionless trade north-south and east-west. We are in the middle of certainly, as a people, being used as a pawn in the middle of the Brexit debate right now. And that’s not a good place for us to be.
“Our people need certainty, our businesses need certainty and we will work to make sure that that happens.”
Under the protocol, Northern Ireland will remain in the EU Single Market for goods and administer the EU’s customs code at its ports.
The Internal Market Bill tabled by the UK Government at Westminster could override elements of the protocol’s operation, including around the application of EU state aid rules in Northern Ireland and on the requirement for exit summary declarations for goods moving from the region to Great Britain.
The laws, if enacted, are designed for use if a wider trade deal with the EU and UK does not materialise.
Ms O’Neill was answering Assembly questions on a meeting of the ministers from the Stormont Executive and Irish Government at the end of July.
SDLP member Matthew O’Toole asked would she use the North South Ministerial Council to raise the issue of Northern Ireland being included in future EU trade deals once the transition period ends at the end of 2020.
Ms O’Neill said she would be happy to raise the issue.
The deputy First Minister expressed hope that the impasse over the protocol could be ironed out through the joint EU UK committee set up to look at how it will operate.
“We are clearly in politically volatile times in terms of Brexit and what that means, but what we hope is that there is an outcome through the joint committee,” she said.
Asked by Alliance’s Stewart Dickson if her and Mrs Foster jointly shared the concerns raised by businesses, she said: “I don’t think it’s any secret to the member that myself and the First Minister have a different outlook in terms of Brexit but we have a commonality in terms of protecting our people and what we want to see is a minimisation of any disruption,” she said.
“So I hope that there’s a political outcome achieved here over the course of the next number of weeks and certainly, I’ll use my best endeavours to play my part in all of that.”