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Majority Of Northern Ireland Politicians Reject UK's Protocol Plan "In Strongest Possible Terms"

4 min read

A majority of Northern Ireland's assembly members (MLAs) have strongly criticised the government's plan to unilaterally override the Northern Ireland Protocol in a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The letter is signed by 52 of Stormont's 90 MLAs and comes as the government prepares to publish legislation seeking to scrap large parts of the post-Brexit treaty. 

All MLAs in Sinn Fein, Alliance, and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) added their signatures to Monday's letter. No politician from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), or any other unionist party, have done so, however.

It reads: "We reject in the strongest possible terms your Gov’s reckless new Protocol legislation, which flies in the face of the expressed wishes of not just most businesses, but most people in Northern Ireland."

The government argues the plan will protect the Good Friday peace deal and help get the government in Belfast up and running. The DUP is currently blocking the formation of an Executive over their opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Speaking on Monday, Johnson said the Northern Ireland Protocol in its current form was upsetting "the balance and the symmetry" of the peace agreement and needed fixing.

"We have to understand there are two traditions in Northern Ireland, broadly two ways of looking at the border issues, and one community at the moment feels very, very estranged from the way things are operating and very alienated," he told reporters.

The letter urges ministers to abandon their plan to act unilaterally and instead up efforts to negotiate a deal with Brussels. "While we share a desire to see the arrangements work as smoothly as possible, the way to achieve that is through engagement with the European Union," it says.

It also rejects the government's argument that it is protecting the Good Friday Agreement by legislation to override the agreement with the EU.

"To complain the Protocol lacks cross-community consent, while ignoring the fact that Brexit itself – let alone hard Brexit – lacks even basic majority consent here, is a grotesque act of political distortion. Your claims to be acting to protect our institutions is as much a fabrication as the Brexit campaign claims you made in 2016," it says.

The Alliance party, led by Naomi Long MLA, has separately accused the government of sidelining Northern Irish parties which oppose their plan in the process of putting together the legislation.

In an email to government on Friday, and leaked to PoliticsHome, Long complained that "only one" political party in Stormont – the DUP – had been "central to the preparation of this legislation".

Long declined the offer of a technical briefing on the bill, arguing that the government had treated Northern Ireland's political parties in a "differential manner" in its approach.

She said: "We are, therefore, not interested in offering the government's approach any veneer of credibility, given the fact that it has been treating NI parties in a differential manner and ignoring the expressed views of a majority of NI elected representatives, businesses and civil society on this matter".

A government source hit back at the email, telling PoliticsHome that Long's characterisation of the government's engagement with Northern Ireland political parties was "inaccurate".

"It is disappointing that Naomi Long is the only party leader to reject the offer of a technical briefing on the Government’s Protocol legislation. It is designed in the best interests of all the people and businesses in Northern Ireland.

"We have engaged with all the parties throughout this process, to suggest otherwise is inaccurate".

The Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed as part of Brexit negotiations, was designed to avoid a contentious hard border on the island of Ireland, but resulted in new barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The UK and EU are committed to reducing these barriers, but have failed to agree changes after eighteen of negotiations.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is today expected to unveil legislation that will give ministers the power to drop large parts of the treaty. The plan is set to face fierce opposition in the House of Lords and prompt legal action from the EU, as well as possible trade retaliation.

A Tory who opposes the plan said the letter to Johnson showed that the government was "showing complete and utter contempt for the people of Northern Ireland" and "a stark reminder that the government is not only lying to its own MPs and the media about the illegal focus of this bill".

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