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Starmer accuses Johnson of taking ‘wrecking ball’ to UK-Irish relations

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in the Long Room in Trinity College Dublin (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in the Long Room in Trinity College Dublin (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

UK Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer has accused the Prime Minister of taking a “wrecking ball” to relationships with Ireland and the EU with his controversial plan to unilaterally scrap aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Sir Keir visited Dublin on Thursday to meet senior figures in the Irish Government to discuss the deepening row over the post-Brexit trading arrangements.

Boris Johnson’s Government has revealed plans to introduce domestic legislation that would override parts of the Brexit deal for Northern Ireland.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss announced plans to legislate last month and the Bill is expected to be published in the coming days.

This week, Taoiseach Micheal Martin warned that a UK Government move to legislate to override parts of the protocol would represent a “historic low point” in recent Anglo-Irish relations.

On a visit to Trinity College in Dublin city, Sir Keir said: “As someone who cares deeply about the relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom, I’m concerned about the comments that have been made.

Keir Starmer visit to Dublin and Belfast
Sir Keir Starmer arriving with shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle to Trinity College Dublin during his visit to Dublin (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

“Of course there are challenges with the protocol, but I think that we have faced much greater challenges than that in our shared history and I think we can deal with the remaining issues.

“We’ve faced bigger problems than this. With good faith, statecraft and trust around the negotiating table, which is what a Labour government would bring, these problems can be overcome. But a Prime Minister without those attributes taking a wrecking ball to the relationship is not going to help anybody.

“Trust is very important in all of this and this Prime Minister does not have the trust, or I fear he doesn’t have the trust, to negotiate in the way that I actually think would lead to a solution to the problems.”

Post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland have dominated discussions between Sir Keir and Irish political leaders in Dublin.

Keir Starmer visit to Dublin and Belfast
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer in the Long Room in Trinity College Dublin (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

He also visited the Ireland’s oldest library at Trinity College and the Book of Kells exhibition.

Commenting on the prospect of the UK Government unilaterally scrapping parts of the protocol, Sir Keir said the Labour Party believed in upholding international law.

“There are challenges that need to be overcome but I start, and the Labour Party starts, with the principle that we believe in and will always uphold the Good Friday Agreement, and we believe in and will abide by international law,” he added.

“The single biggest barrier at the moment is a Prime Minister who doesn’t have those attributes, who is distracted, is divided, he’s doing everything he can to save his own skin rather than focusing on the issue here, which is how do we get people around negotiating table, flexibility on both sides so we can overcome the remaining problems.”

Sir Keir said there is a long shared history between Ireland and the United Kingdom, adding that the Good Friday Agreement is one of the proudest achievements of the last Labour government.

“I am here to assure everyone I speak to, of our renewed commitment to the Good Friday Agreement which is as relevant today as it was the day it was signed and to make the commitment against the backdrop of a Government led by Boris Johnson which is divided and frankly taking a wrecking ball to relations between Ireland and the UK,” he added.

The Labour leader also met President Michael D Higgins and Taoiseach Micheal Martin, as well as Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin (left) in conversation with President Michael D Higgins
Taoiseach Micheal Martin (left) in conversation with President Michael D Higgins (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mr Martin tweeted that he had a “good” meeting with the Labour leader.

Sir Keir, who spoke briefly to reporters as he left the meeting with the Irish premier, described it as a “very positive” discussion.

He told RTE radio that he had “picked up high levels of concern” in Dublin about the UK Government response to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“We’re on our way to Belfast where I know there will be equally high levels of concern about the protocol and the way that the Government is dealing with the protocol,” he said.

Mr Coveney also tweeted: “Very welcome visit from Keir Starmer today to focus on the importance of British/Irish relations and finding agreed ways forward, through negotiation, to outstanding issues of concern.

“There are no current issues that cannot be resolved with good will and pragmatism.”

Sir Keir also spent the 15-minute walk from Mr Coveney’s office to Government Buildings chatting with Irish Labour leader Ivana Bacik.

On Friday, the Labour leader will be in Belfast to meet political leaders in Stormont, where he is expected to call for compromise and negotiation to end the political deadlock over the return of the powersharing Executive.

Mr Starmer was also asked on RTE radio about the prospects of a border poll in Northern Ireland.

He said he did not believe a referendum on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland was likely in the near future.

“I don’t think we’re anywhere near a border poll. I think this is a hypothetical question,” he said.

“What we’re dealing with is practical issues in relation to trade now that the UK has left the EU, so I don’t think that a border poll is anywhere near, even on the horizon, and therefore it’s a hypothetical question.”