By Dominic McGrath, PA
A US delegation led by Congressman Richard Neal has been urged to use its influence to help solve issues with post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland.
Mr Neal led his delegation in meetings with all Stormont parties on Thursday, amid deadlock over a return to power-sharing caused by DUP opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry said his party had urged a delegation from the US Congress to help overcome issues with the protocol.
Speaking after the meeting, he said it had been a privilege to meet the delegation, and he described a “very useful engagement around protocol-related issues”.
Mr Farry said: “We had two main asks for the delegation. The first one was that they continue to raise their deep concerns with the UK Government over unilateral action in terms of this forthcoming piece of legislation.
“There are wider implications for international law of course but in terms of Northern Ireland this actually makes the task of finding genuine, long-term, sustainable solutions that bit harder, so it’s important that they continue to pass on that message.
“The second aspect is that we have asked them to ask the European Union to be as flexible as possible in trying to find solutions.
“Obviously we are all extremely frustrated by the approach the UK Government is taking, their intransigence around issues and the way they are digging an even deeper hole in terms of this Bill, but we do need to see those long-term solutions found, and while it is difficult, challenging, and becoming more so, nonetheless we have to find those solutions and the European Union does need to be a partner in that regard as well.
“So we have asked them, as the United States’ representatives, to encourage the European Union to go that extra mile and try to find an outcome.”
Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie claimed that the US delegation now understand unionists’ concerns about the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Speaking after meeting the delegation, Mr Beattie said he made their concerns clear to the group of US politicians.
Mr Beattie added: “They understood the unionist point of view in regards to the Belfast Agreement and how our relationships east-west, and north-south are being damaged and how they can be easily fixed.
“We made it clear that if they didn’t come out of it [the meeting] understanding the unionist point, then they haven’t been listening.
“It’s my understanding that they now understand the issues at hand, what is affecting the unionist people, what has the concern of the unionist people, and it’s not manufactured – this is long-term – and we have said this since the protocol first appeared.
“I think they get it now. But we will know if they get it if they come out and say “we now understand”, because we made that point quite heavily to them.”
The SDLP on Thursday defended Mr Neal, some of whose comments and interventions have been criticised by the DUP.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “Richie Neal has got the interests of this peace process at heart, he has got the interests of the Good Friday Agreement at heart. He wants to see these institutions back up and running.”
“They get it, they get the problems Brexit has created in our politics.
“They get the fact we have to implement international agreements, like the WA, including the protocol, notwithstanding the fact there are flexibilities that can be found to make people comfortable.
“But none of this will be done, as they recognise, by walking away from these institutions, by not getting into Government, not rolling our sleeves up and getting the work done.”
“The British government has announced a very significant package of money to deal with the cost-of-living crisis today.
“Lots of that money will be coming to Northern Ireland, but it won’t be able to be spent, it won’t be put into people’s pockets if the DUP don’t turn up next Monday and appoint a Speaker and then appoint a Deputy First Minister.”