Richard Neal: Northern Ireland Protocol not a real crisis but unionist fears legitimate

Controversial US Congressional leader Richard Neal last night insisted the Northern Ireland Protocol controversy is “not a real crisis” but also accepted that unionist fears over the post-Brexit trade were “legitimate”.
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A visit by Mr Neal and eight fellow US Congress members was earlier labelled “the most undiplomatic to these shores” by DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.

In a bid to repair some of the damage in relations between the American delegation and unionism, Mr Neal issued a statement later yesterday acknowledging that he “could have picked a more artful term” rather than “manufactured” to depict the protocol furore.

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Mr Neal said his meeting with the DUP had gone “very well” and that he accepted unionist apprehensions over the protocol were “legitimate”.

US Congressman Richard Neal pictured following his meeting at Stormont with party leaders on ThursdayUS Congressman Richard Neal pictured following his meeting at Stormont with party leaders on Thursday
US Congressman Richard Neal pictured following his meeting at Stormont with party leaders on Thursday

The chair of the US ‘Ways and Means Committee’ on Capitol Hill said he told the DUP he also “understood the apprehension that they have raised about a border in the Irish Sea”.

On the protocol issue, Mr Neal insisted: “I still don’t think it’s a crisis. I think it’s a problem to be solved, duly negotiated – much of it emanates from Brussels and London but it should include the people of Northern Ireland in the discussion and deliberation.”

He continued: “I would like to see the issue negotiated. I thought that the apprehension they (DUP) raised was legitimate. I think that there is an acknowledgement that there are some problems with the protocol.

“We want them smoothed over and repaired.”

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At a short press conference in Stormont’s Great Hall yesterday afternoon, Mr Neal repeated his belief that the protocol was not tantamount to a full-blown political crisis. As he was being asked about his other comment on Unionists as “planters” Mr Neal was ushered out of the Great Hall and the media huddled in front of him.

The DUP leader said he heard a “more realistic approach” during his party’s meeting with the delegation.

Speaking after his meeting with Mr Neal and his delegation, UUP leader Doug Beattie said: “I think they get it now but we will know if they get it if they come out and say, ‘We now understand’, because we made that point quite heavily to them.”

After offering his condolences to the US politicians over the gun massacre in Texas, Mr Beattie said he told Mr Neal that everyone “had to be careful of the language we use as it may well be historical but will have a derogatory affect on some people”.

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The UUP leader said he outlined the “landing zone” for fixing the protocol to the American delegation.

Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said US attention was to be welcomed.

“We have had a very good meeting with them in terms of our shared objective, which is to have this Executive and Assembly up and running, supporting people through the cost-of-living crisis, addressing our health service needs,” she said.

“There is work to be done but I think the attention from this delegation is something that is very much to be welcomed.”

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Meanwhile, Sir Jeffrey revealed his party confronted Mr Neal about his use of the term “planter” to refer to unionists in Northern Ireland.

He said his party colleague Jonathan Buckley told Mr Neal he is also a planter and that comparisons were made between Northern Ireland today and one of the most seismic events in US history, the Boston Tea Party.

Sir Jeffrey said that when tea chests were pushed into the harbour in Boston in 1773, the mantra was no taxation without representation.

“And I reminded Congressman Neal and his colleagues that this too is our mantra: that today Northern Ireland is subjected to laws and taxes into which it has no say, that not a single member elected to this Assembly can influence many of the laws that now oversee how we conduct trade in our country because they are imposed by the European Union, and there is no democratic accountability to this institution or any democratic institution in this country,” he said.

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“So I reminded Congressman Neal that the principle of no taxation without representation applies to Northern Ireland and we need to sort that out and until we sort it out and see the solution being put in place we cannot make the progress that we want to see.”