High-ranking US politician Richard Neal says row over Northern Ireland protocol is a ‘manufactured issue’

Richard Neal. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Image

Hugh O'Connell

THE row over the Northern Ireland protocol is a “manufactured issue” that can be ironed out quickly if the British government is willing to find a solution, a high-ranking US politician has said.

Democratic Congressman Richard Neal, who chairs the influential US House of Representatives’ ways and means committee, said that all sides wanted to resolve the current impasse, but that it was now “up to London to help us all find a solution”.

“The protocol dispute seems to me to be a manufactured issue,” Mr Neal said at a joint press conference with Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney at Iveagh House in Dublin on Tuesday.

“I have on this delegation, people who are experts at trade, and they also confirmed that they think these issues on the trade front that's really the dispute could be ironed out quickly.”

Mr Neal is leading a congressional delegation that is visiting Brussels, London, Dublin, Kerry and Belfast this week amid ongoing tension between the EU and the UK over the post-Brexit trading arrangements for the North.

The British government has signalled plans to scrap parts of the protocol via domestic legislation – a move that has been sharply criticised by the EU which would consider such measures a breach of international law.

Mr Neal said just 7pc of people who voted in the recent Northern Ireland Assembly elections did so over concerns about the protocol.

Mr Neal said there was a “certain vagueness” in his conversations with British foreign secretary Liz Truss about what the UK was seeking.

He said the flow of goods was a paramount issue but not a big one.

He said he hoped the British government’s concerns were not about domestic politics.

Mr Neal recalled that 30 years ago there were 30,000 British soldiers in an area the size of the state of Connecticut, describing the North back then as a “militarised state”.

He recalled a congressional delegation visit to the North in 1989 or 1990 when their bus was stopped at the Donegal-Derry border.

“The bus was mounted. The military had night vision and full armaments as they searched the bus,” he said.

“What we did for the American dimension was to change that to your phone pinging now when you move across the border.

"This is a template for the world.”

He said he did not understand why there would be “any retreat” from that progress in the run up to the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Coveney pointed out there had been no cross-community support for Brexit or for the protocol arrangement itself which had been proposed by Boris Johnson’s government.

Mr Coveney said the EU had shown a willingness to compromise and show flexibility over the last 12 months.

“I think we look to the British government to see whether they’re willing to do the same,” he said.

“The last thing we want is tension with London, tension between the UK and the EU at a time when we should be working together on much much bigger issues in the context of war in Ukraine and the extraordinary human suffering that we’re seeing as a result of that.

“That's where we should be focusing today in partnership, as opposed to this ongoing issue, which, from my perspective, is hugely frustrating, because there is a willingness to find solutions if we had a partner that was willing to compromise in London.”

Mr Coveney also said support from the US was not confined to the Democratic Party.

“It's a US issue, where both parties are equally curious and interested and knowledgeable around what's happening and take their role as guarantor of the peace and stability on this island equally seriously,” he said.

Speaking in the Seanad on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Neal outlined the clear message the US delegation will be delivering in meetings with political parties in Northern Ireland later this week.

“This message we will bring is firm, clear and unambiguous: the number one priority for the United States on this island is to ensure that the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland is preserved and reinforced,” he said.

He said that “any incautious move to undo the protocol” would put the Good Friday Agreement at risk at a time when it should be celebrated.

He said: “Unilateral actions, intransigence and ultimatums are not solutions, nor have they ever been. America will continue to nudge and nurture this agreement. After all, the Good Friday Agreement is America's too.”

To applause from senators, Mr Neal said the EU-UK protocol’s implementation needs to be the subject of a “negotiated agreement and not unilateral action”.

Mr Neal’s speech received an extended standing ovation from senators. Responding on behalf of the Government, the Seanad leader and Fine Gael senator Regina Doherty described Mr Neal as “true friend of Ireland”

Earlier, Cathaoirleach Mark Daly noted that Mr Neal is the first ever member of the US Congress to address the Seanad and in welcoming him, he quoted poet and former senator WB Yeats: “There are no strangers here, only friends we have not met yet.”

Mr Daly paid tribute to Mr Neal’s work on the peace process. “He has been involved in the search for peace when it was unimaginable,” he said.

Meanwhile, the DUP has reacted angrily to Mr Neal’s comments about objections to the protocol being “manufactured”. MLA Diane Dodds described the remarks as “outrageous” and said she had written to all members of the Congressional Ways and Means Committee to record the DUP’s rejection of the remarks.

“If the US delegation want to be helpful, they should speak up for consensus politics and seek a path which respects Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom and can command support of unionists. From the minute Ritchie Neal’s feet touched these shores, he has been more of a hindrance than a help to progress,” Ms Dodds said.