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Naomi Long says UK Government has used Northern Ireland as ‘bit of a play thing’

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long (Liam McBurney/PA)
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long (Liam McBurney/PA)

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said the UK Government has sometimes used Northern Ireland as “a bit of a play thing” which is “damaging” relations and devolution.

“I understand [the DUP’s] lack of trust in the UK Government because I think at times the UK Government have used Northern Ireland as a bit of a play thing when it comes to maintaining a grievance with Europe,” Ms Long told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme.

“They’re willing to continue to have this constant grievance with the European Union and Northern Ireland is a useful lever for them.

“But it’s very damaging for community relations and for good governance in Northern Ireland.”

In order to get past this impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol, Ms Long said that trust is needed.

She said: “What we need to do now is build trust with the European Union. We’re asking them essentially, to devolve the protection of the single market to the UK to allow us to have a green channel for goods coming from GB to Northern Ireland that won’t go any further.

“But for them to do that, they need to trust the UK Government will do what it says it’s going to do.”

The East Belfast MLA said she understands why the DUP do not trust the British Government, and that the border friction is “difficult” for unionists, but added that it was an “inevitability as a consequence of Brexit”.

“Unfortunately, Brexit put borders and border friction back on the agenda, and that is very difficult for the very delicate ecology of Northern Ireland to deal with,” she said.

“The protocol was an attempt, albeit, I would say, a rather heavy-handed attempt, to deal with those border frictions and to ensure there was still free flow across the border on the island of Ireland and no hard border established, but it did in the end lead to an additional level of friction in the Irish Sea.”

EU and UK flags
Naomi Long said Brexit ‘put borders and border friction back on the agenda’ (PA)

The protocol is a post-Brexit trade arrangement for Northern Ireland negotiated between the UK and EU as part of the Withdrawal Agreement.

In order to avoid a return of checkpoints along the Irish border, after many years of tense negotiations, London and Brussels essentially agreed to move the new Brexit regulatory and customs processes to the Irish Sea.

That meant some additional checks on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, rather than on goods moving north and south within the island of Ireland.

The DUP has refused to elect a speaker to the Assembly in order to put pressure on the UK Government to change how the protocol operates.

On the stalemate at Stormont, Ms Long has said the alternative to the Alliance Party’s suggestion of non-sectarian powersharing is the “stop-go” system “where the majority of the time we don’t have a functioning devolution”.

Ms Long said this “cycle of crisis and collapse” was not “sustainable”.

“The only way we can stop that happening is to remove the vetoes that those parties currently are able to exercise over the institutions and allow all votes in the Assembly to count for the same amount, because currently my vote doesn’t count for the same amount as other colleagues because I won’t designate as unionist or nationalist,” she said.