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Keir Starmer Blames Lack Of "Trust" In Boris Johnson For Northern Ireland Protocol Stalemate

4 min read

Keir Starmer has said a lack of trust in Boris Johnson is a crucial reason why the UK government and the European Union remain at an impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The Labour leader said trust depended on "keeping your word" and that the government's plans to change the post-Brexit treaty without an agreement with the EU, that were confirmed by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss on Tuesday, would be the UK breaking its own. 

Starmer was speaking an event in Westminster on Wednesday for Northern Ireland business representatives, where an industry leader implored Johnson to reach a negotiated settlement with Brussels.

The Labour leader and former shadow Brexit secretary said both sides needed to show flexibility in order to secure an agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol, not just the UK, but suggested that distrust of Johnson in Northern Ireland and on the continent was getting in the way of progress.

"One thing I can't stress enough is the importance of trust in Northern Ireland," he said.

"People often say to me: 'What's the magic thing, Keir? What's going to make the difference? What is going to unlock this?' There are lots of technical issues and technical ways forward, but the most important thing is trust."

"Trust does involve keeping your word," he added.

"It doesn't work in the business community, or in international politics or any politics, if you don't keep your word. That isn't the first time I've had to remind the Prime Minister of that."

Starmer said the Prime Minister had to be more honest about what he signed up to when he agreed the protocol as part of Brexit negotiations, rather than "deflect, pretend it isn't what it is, or that history was something else".

He warned Johnson that his plan to override the treaty through primary legislation risked tarnishing the UK's reputation as a country which upholds international law.

"The UK must be a country that keeps its word," he said. "That reflects who we are: a nation that stands for the rule of law. It's a hallmark of how we operate on the European and global stage."

Starmer urged the two sides to negotiate "practical solutions", rather than engage in "rhetoric or rows".

The Labour leader said that if he were in Downing Street he would sign up to closer alignment with the EU, in the form of a veterinary agreement that the bloc has with countries like Switzerland, to remove many of the checks facing businesses sending goods across the Irish Sea. 

Truss confirmed yesterday that the government would legislate to redraw the protocol through unilateral action if the UK is unable to reach a negotiated settlement with Brussels soon.

Ministers plan to introduce a new bill in the "coming weeks" that would dramatically reduce the number of checks carried out on goods heading from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, as well as remove the European Court of Justice from its role of overseeing the agreement. 

The EU has strongly urged the government not to act unilaterally, and instead stick with the talks.

Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission Vice-President, yesterday warned that the EU would respond through all measures at its disposal if the UK did not change course. This is set to include trade retaliation, which the government has been warned would risk exacerbating the ongoing cost-of-living crisis by further driving up the prices of everyday items. 

Truss said the UK needed to take matters in its own hands in order to protect the Good Friday peace deal, telling MPs that the proposals put forward by the EU were not sufficient to allay the concerns of unionists in Northern Ireland. 

Speaking at the same event this afternoon, Manufacturing NI's Stephen Kelly said "solutions are available" for the protocol and urged the two sides to reach a negotiated outcome. 

Kelly likened the current impasse to the threat of a no-deal Brexit three years ago, which he said would have resulted in 40,000 job losses in Northern Ireland, or around 5% of all jobs.

"Back in 2019, the Prime Minister very kindly offered to host us for a reception at no10.

"That was the time when there was the potential of a no-deal Brexit," he said.

"The message from everybody was clear and universal at the reception that evening: we needed a deal. The week that we are in, where we have continued uncertainty about what the future looks like, the message from us today is the same as it was in September 2019: we need a deal."

"We understand that people are annoyed and frustrated, and that people are upset about where we've ended up," he added.

"We hope the EU, rather than reacting to what we've seen, will take the opportunity to get into discussion and that the UK will be helpful in that discussion."

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