Unionists criticise claims that Northern Ireland Protocol is a 'manufactured issue'

US Congressman Richard Neal made the comments earlier today, prompting anger among Unionist politicians
Unionists criticise claims that Northern Ireland Protocol is a 'manufactured issue'

Congressman Richard Neal with President Michael D Higgins and other members of the US Congressional Delegation at Áras an Uachtaráin. Picture: Maxwells Dublin

Unionist politicians in the North have criticised comments made by US Congressman Richard Neal that the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol seemed to be a "manufactured issue".

Speaking in Dublin ahead of his address to the Seanad, Mr Neal said his eight-strong cross-party delegation from Washington are of the view that the protocol issue is minor and “can be ironed out quickly”.

Mr Neal, chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, told the Irish Examiner: "The protocol dispute seems to me to be a manufactured issue.

"I have on this delegation people who are experts at trade and they also would confirm that they think these issues on the trade front, if that's really the dispute, could be ironed out quickly."

Mr Neal also heaped pressure on the British Government to meet the EU and the Irish Government in their willingness to compromise and find a solution.

He made it clear that he is looking to London to come up with the goods to resolve the current impasse.

“So what we've heard so far, clearly from the European Union, is they want to find a solution. 

“What we've heard from the ministers here in Dublin, the Taoiseach, and the President, is that they want to find a solution. 

“We in the congressional delegation want to find a solution. 

“So I think now it's up to London to help us all find a solution,” he told the Irish Examiner.

His comments have landed badly with the unionist parties who described them as "unbelievable" and "outrageous".

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson hit out at the Congressman's comments.

"If Richie Neal believes that distorting the truth about election results and ignoring the totality of unionist opposition to the protocol will safeguard the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, then he merely exposes his own ignorance and prejudice and slavish adherence to Sinn Féin dogma."

UUP leader Doug Beattie tweeted: "Unbelievable - is this really helping the situation in any way."

The DUP's Diane Dodds said she had written to all members of the Ways and Means Committee to record the DUP's rejection of Mr Neal's suggestion that its objection to the protocol was "manufactured".

Mrs Dodds said: "From the minute Richie Neal's feet touched these shores, he has been more of a hindrance than a help to progress.

"To suggest the more than 40% of MLAs elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly less than 20 days ago were 'manufacturing' their opposition to the NI Protocol is outrageous."

Mr Neal had said there was a “certain vagueness” in the conversation the delegation had with British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss as to what exactly they are looking to scrap from the protocol and how they would resolve it.

Mr Neal also offered to help resolve the impasse with the trade experts on his team, if they are needed.

“Because we have trade expertise on our side. 

We said, 'Well, we can iron these things out with you'. 

“And the flow of goods for example, was paramount issue for them and that's not a big issue, let me tell you,” he said.

Mr Neal spoke of his previous experience of negotiating the highly complex free trade agreement between the US, Canada, and Mexico.

“It involved three nations in the western hemisphere, and was the largest in the history of the world. So the complexities that we're talking about here [in NI Protocol] are very small,” he said.

Foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney, speaking at the same press conference, said Ireland and the EU are ready to work in partnership with the Johnson Government, but “we need a partner”.

“We want, through negotiation, to be able to respond to the legitimate concerns that have been raised in relation to how the protocol is being implemented in particular, the concerns raised by the unions community in Northern Ireland. 

“We think we can respond to those concerns in a significant way, through partnership, but we need a partner for partnership,” he said.

He said the EU has shown over the last 12 months it's willing to compromise. It's willing to show flexibility, it's willing to introduce new initiatives within the confines of an international agreement. “And really, I think we look to the British government to see whether they're willing to do the same,” he added.

There is a risk, Mr Coveney said, that the British government will decide to go it alone and will in fact, effectively impose a solution that they regard as the correct one, without partnership.

“I think that will cause a lot more problems than it would solve,” he said.

But from an Irish Government's perspective, he said the last thing he wants is tension with London.

“We do not want tension between the UK and the EU at a time when we should be working together on much, much bigger issues, let's face it, in the context of war in Ukraine, and the extraordinary human suffering that we're seeing as a result of that,” he said.

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