By Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA
Unionist politicians have criticised comments made by a senior US Democrat that the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol seemed to be a “manufactured issue”.
Richard Neal, chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, has been leading an eight-member US delegation on a trip to Ireland, the UK and Belgium in recent days.
Speaking in Dublin on Tuesday, he told reporters: “The protocol dispute seems to me to be a manufactured issue.
“I have on this delegation people who are experts at trade, and they also would confirm that they think these issues on the trade front, if that’s really the dispute, could be ironed out quickly.”
When asked to elaborate on his comments, Mr Neal said: “I hope this is not about domestic politics, I hope that this is about the historic accord that we call the Good Friday Agreement.”
He added that the EU, Ireland and his delegation “want to find a solution” on the protocol.
“So, I think now it’s up to London to help us all find a solution.”
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson hit out at the Congressman’s comments.
“If Richie Neal believes that distorting the truth about election results and ignoring the totality of unionist opposition to the protocol will safeguard the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, then he merely exposes his own ignorance and prejudice and slavish adherence to Sinn Féin dogma.”
UUP leader Doug Beattie tweeted: “Unbelievable – is this really helping the situation in any way.”
The DUP’s Diane Dodds said she had written to all members of the Ways and Means Committee to record the DUP’s rejection of Mr Neal’s suggestion that its objection to the protocol was “manufactured”.
Mrs Dodds said: “From the minute Richie Neal’s feet touched these shores, he has been more of a hindrance than a help to progress.
“To suggest the more than 40 per cent of MLAs elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly less than 20 days ago were ‘manufacturing’ their opposition to the NI Protocol is outrageous.
“The protocol has not enjoyed the support of a single unionist MP or MLA since it was forced upon us by Westminster and Brussels.”
The Upper Bann MLA said the protocol had “made Northern Ireland a colony where we are subject to rules but are powerless to change them”.
TUV East Antrim spokesman Norman Boyd said that Mr Neal “clearly has no interest in listening to the concerns of unionists or attempting to understand them”.
He said: “Given his long-standing association with militant Irish Republicanism, this is hardly surprising but it is nonetheless galling to listen to his uninformed lectures about a place he has no understanding of beyond the misty-eyed Irish American fairy tales which have infected US politicians from both main parties for many decades.
“We all wish Congressman Neal a speedy return home.
“He wants to see an end to Northern Ireland and his enthusiasm for the protocol should merely serve to stiffen Unionist resolve to see its complete removal.”