In a brief interview with the News Letter yesterday during several days in Northern Ireland, Sir Keir Starmer said that Labour wanted to see the “reduction or elimination of checks” put in place at the new Irish Sea border.
Earlier this week Sir Keir called for a veterinary agreement between the whole UK and the EU, something which the EU says would remove about 80% of the current checks – but would mean the UK almost certainly agreeing to follow EU laws on the regulation of plant and animal products, without any democratic say in how those laws are made.
However, even if that was agreed it would leave another major burier to trade which has been introduced under the protocol – the customs border in the Irish Sea.
When asked if he would support the current customs border continuing, Sir Keir said: “We’ve got the protocol which the prime minister negotiated and we have to find a way to make that work. That’s what I’ve been talking to the political parties here in Northern Ireland about and they’ve shared with me their concern.
“What I want to achieve practically is the reduction or elimination of checks east-west and obviously a veterinary agreement is part of the answer to that...but anything that reduces checks east-west as a practical measure is something which I would want to talk to political leaders about.
“But there’s no escaping the fact that the frustration that’s come through loud and clear in the last three days from all political parties is that the prime minister negotiated the protocol, he knew what he was doing, he missold it and misrepresented what the consequences were and now he’s not taking responsibility for finding the practical solutions that will make the protocol work.”
He said there was now a “sense of mistrust in the prime minister” which is “profound”.
When asked if he would remove the Irish Sea customs border by bringing all of the UK back into the EU customs union, Sir Keir declined to give any such commitment.
Instead the Labour leader said: “Look, I would resolve this by finding practical solutions to the protocol that we’ve got and making it work; that requires negotiation obviously with the EU but also engaging the political parties here and community leaders here.”
When it was put to Sir Keir that it sounded like he did not have a solution to the problem and was instead saying he would start to negotiate and try to alter the present situation, he said: “Well, I’d start with a veterinary agreement – and that can come in different shapes and sizes, different forms; there are other veterinary agreements around the world that we could draw on – but what I hope...[is] if there’s going to be a lasting solution in Northern Ireland that’s going to be accepted, the discussions around what the practical answer is have to involve the political parties and the communities in Northern Ireland.”
Regardless of how the issue is dealt with, Sir Keir pledged that if he was prime minister he would be utterly honest with the people of Northern Ireland.
He said he would be “absolutely honest and straight. And I would re-establish as a top priority the role of the British prime minister, the British government, as an honest broker; that is the right approach, it underpinned the Good Friday agreement; John Major understood it, Tony Blair understood it and Keir Starmer as prime minister understands it as well”.
When asked if he shared unionist criticism of the Irish government for having adopted what many unionists see as a nationalist interpretation of the Belfast Agreement – contrary to how the overwhelming bulk of unionists, including Lord Trimble, view that document – and whether he would be speaking to the Irish government, he said: “The lack of trust in the prime minister is not just here in Northern Ireland; it’s in Dublin as well and it’s in Brussels for that matter.
“Of course we’re in discussions with the Irish government; we’ve always had good relations with the Irish government and I’m particularly concerned that those relations between the UK and Ireland are also at an all-time low.
“There’s a common theme here — that’s lack of trust, lack of honesty from a prime minister who either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care about the honest broker role.”
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