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Government legislation on NI Protocol reckless and disgraceful – O’Neill

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill (Liam McBurney/PA)
Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill (Liam McBurney/PA)

A Bill which allows the Government to override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol is “reckless and disgraceful”, Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill has said.

But DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said it is right that the UK Government has acted on the protocol and said he would read the Bill against his party’s tests for removing the Irish Sea border.

Sir Jeffrey also denied that his party was under pressure to re-enter powersharing at Stormont now that the Government has published the legislation.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the legislation would introduce “relatively simple” bureaucratic changes, but Ms O’Neill said it was a clear breach of international law.

She is one of 52 MLAs who have signed a joint letter to the Prime Minister stating their opposition to the legislation.

The protocol was jointly agreed by the UK and EU as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement to keep the Irish land border free-flowing.

The arrangements instead require regulatory checks and customs declarations on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Speaking to the media at Stormont, Ms O’Neill said: “Today’s action by Boris Johnson in Westminster is absolutely reckless, it is disgraceful, it does nothing to serve the interests of the people here.

“It flies in the face of an international agreement which he himself negotiated. It is in clear breach of international law.”

An anti-Northern Ireland Protocol sign close to Larne Port (Liam McBurney/PA)

She added: “Boris Johnson’s action is illegal, he is in clear breach of international law, regardless of the detail.

“He himself signed up to an agreement, he signed on the dotted line and he’s now legislating to breach that international agreement.

“We want people to understand that we are speaking on behalf of the people here and the majority of parties are for the protocol.

“We opposed Brexit but we accept the protocol is mitigation.

“We have had a number of business organisations out very strongly to say the protocol is working.

“What Boris Johnson is doing today is to undermine all of that, bringing economic uncertainty. He is jeopardising jobs, local jobs.

“I just don’t think it is acceptable and it is important that we call it out.”

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (Liam McBurney/PA)

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said his party would read the Bill with interest.

He added: “I believe that finally we are now seeing the kind of action that is required to begin the process of removing the barriers to trade within the United Kingdom to restoring Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market.”

Sir Jeffrey said the EU’s negotiating mandate was “so limited” it could not agree to the changes that were required to the protocol.

“We believe it is right that the UK Government takes this action, the UK Government has a primary responsibility to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom and its internal market, whilst at the same time making reasonable proposals that offer protection to the European Union and their single market,” he said.

Sir Jeffrey was pressed on reports that the DUP had been warned by the Government that it would not progress the legislation if his party did not agree to re-enter powersharing at Stormont.

He said: “I am not under any pressure. We have strong support from across unionism for the stand that we are taking.

“I believe that our pressure has brought about what we see today with this Bill being published. I believe that our pressure is seeing progress being made and we will continue to work with government to ensure that this legislation progresses.”

Asked if there had been Government attempts to pressurise him, Sir Jeffrey  added: “No, I wouldn’t characterise my conversations with the Government in that way.

“I think the Government is anxious to see devolution restored and that is why it is introducing this Bill.”