US Congressman Richard Neal: Protocol is a ‘problem to be solved’ but ‘not a real crisis’

Congressman Richard Neal has said the stand-off over the Northern Ireland Protocol is a “problem” but “not a real crisis”.

Mr Neal was commenting after he and fellow members of a congressional delegation held talks with the main Stormont parties in Belfast.

“To describe the protocol issue as a crisis is inconsistent with the success we’ve had over 25 years of the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.

“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.”

US Congressman Richard Neal following his meetings with Northern Ireland parties at Stormont today

He added: “I think that every time we simply use the word crisis to describe everything, then we forget what a real crisis means, and I continue to believe this is not a real crisis.”

Responding to unionist criticism over his description of the Brexit trade dispute as a “manufactured issue”, Mr Neal acknowledged he could have “picked a more artful term to describe the now impasse that has been reached”.

He added: “But anybody that would suggest that it was maliciously intended would be misguided.”

Mr Neal, who said his meeting with the DUP went “very well”, said unionist apprehensions about the protocol were “legitimate”.

He said: “I think I was very clear in the meeting that I had with the DUP that while I don’t want to see a hard border on the island, I also pointed out to them that I understood the apprehension that they have raised about a border in the Irish Sea – I thought that they were very receptive to that argument.”

Mr Neal added: “I would like to see the issue negotiated.

“I thought that the apprehension that they raised was legitimate. I think that there is an acknowledgment that there are some problems with the protocol.

“We want to see them smoothed over and repaired.”

But he reiterated his stance that he did not view the situation as a “crisis”.

“I believe that it is a problem to be solved, it is not a crisis,” Mr Neal said.

Mr Neal said a US/UK trade deal was “very desirable” but he made clear that would be risked if the London government pressed ahead with unilaterally scrapping parts of the protocol

“It (the threat to the trade deal) is a consequence of the perceived unilateral action that the UK suggested that they might use,” he said.

“I don’t think that’s been well met anywhere. Again, unilateralism generally means that you have a winner and a loser where you would much prefer a negotiated outcome where you only have winners.”

Acknowledging the US’s desire for a trade deal, he added: “But as part of that, we want to make sure that that agreement is reconciled with the idea that we are a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and we don’t want to see it jeopardised.”

Mr Neal said his position was “entirely” in line with the US administration in Washington DC.

He insisted his role and that of the US was as an “honest broker”.

Mr Neal suggested the protocol was a “slight bump” and “momentary challenge” in the political journey Northern Ireland has been on over the last three decades.

He said the issue of whether the Biden administration should appoint a special envoy to Northern Ireland was a matter for the US president to decide on.

“I actually asked the last president (Trump) to do that, to appoint an envoy – he told me he was going to but he did not in the end,” he said.

“But I think it’s up to the president to decide with the secretary of state what the best path would be on that.”

Asked what he felt the prospect of a visit by President Joe Biden to Northern Ireland might be, Mr Neal said he would like to see a presidential presence at events to mark next year’s anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

He added: “I would hope that British prime ministers, taoisigh from the Republic of Ireland, American presidents, American members of Congress, members of the Dail, senate and certainly the Assembly would all gather here for the 25th anniversary and say ‘hooray, that challenge 30 years ago should remind the world of what again people of goodwill can do and they did it’.”