Keir Starmer has urged the EU and the UK to “go the extra mile” to reach agreement on post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland.
Speaking at an event for Northern Ireland businesses on Wednesday in London, the Labour Party leader said that Northern Ireland was a “global player holding its own on the world stage”.
While he took the opportunity to praise business in the region, he also turned to the ongoing political crisis afflicting Northern Ireland.
The DUP is currently blocking the re-establishment of Stormont’s power-sharing institutions in protest at the Northern Ireland protocol, which has created economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Earlier this week, in a highly controversial move, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s announced her intention to legislate to override parts of the Brexit withdrawal treaty.
The announcement prompted anger in European capitals and raised the spectre of a possible trade war with the EU.
It was given a cautious welcome by the DUP.
Mr Starmer told the audience: “As we face the well-known challenges of today businesses have told me that what is needed most of all is clarity and certainty.
“That doesn’t surprise me.
“So politicians need to find a way forward, both at Stormont and in the Government’s negotiations with the EU. We need to find pragmatic ways forward, not re-stating the problem but finding ways to progress.
“And in that endeavour, we all have a part to play and a duty to the people and businesses of Northern Ireland.”
Stressing the importance of “trust”, he also urged the EU to show flexibility in negotiations.
“The Protocol is an agreement that the Prime Minister himself negotiated, ratified and signed with the EU.
“Now he must make it work.
“The UK must be a country that keeps its word. That reflects who we are – a nation that stands for the rule of law.
“And the EU must also show flexibility – I have no doubt about that.
“Now is not a time for rhetoric or rows, it’s a time for the UK and the EU to negotiate practical solutions.”
He told businesses that his party backs a veterinary agreement to reduce the need for checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“Both the government and the EU must go the extra mile and listen to the experience of Northern Ireland business.
“You know what can and can’t work, it is your creativity and your flexibility that can deliver the solutions.
“So it is important that business representatives are also around the table.”
Mr Starmer also welcomed US efforts to intervene in the row, amid indications that a US delegation is set to fly to London for a series of meetings over the protocol.
“The United States is a friend to us all and they play a vital role in securing peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland as they have done over decades.”
Colin Neill, from Hospital Ulster, Manufacturing NI’s Stephen Kelly and Glyn Roberts from Retail NI said they hoped the event in London would be a “wake-up call” that the region is open to new business.
“The past two years have been monumental for the business community as we have battled the pandemic, changes due to the Protocol and the collapse of the Executive once again,” they said in a joint statement.
Junior minister in the Northern Ireland Office, Conor Burns, said in a statement: “I’m delighted to sponsor this event in the Houses of Parliament, bringing together businesses, councils and key sectors from across Northern Ireland.
“Northern Ireland has so much to offer to the rest of the world, and the UK Government is committed to supporting this economic development and shining a light on its potential as a fantastic place to live, work and do business.”
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