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Northern Ireland secretary quizzed for 60 minutes on Boris Johnson's 'broken' Brexit trade promises

Boris Johnson was of sowing mistrust among the unionist community, and is not “a casual observer” to events in the North.

Brandon lewis Source: Parliament TV

NORTHERN IRELAND SECRETARY Brandon Lewis has been questioned by MPs from the DUP and Labour over Boris Johnson’s previous statements that his Brexit deal would not result in checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and how they may have fed into unionist and loyalist frustrations and anger in recent days.

Lewis mentioned a number of factors that have led to scenes of unrest in recent days, including “frustrations” after a year of the coronavirus, particularly for young people; a “perception that the law is not enforced equally, especially after the PSNI’s decision not to prosecute those who attended the Bobby Storey funeral last June; as well as the Northern Ireland Protocol leading to questions around identity and political allegiances.

“Northern Ireland has made huge strides over the last two decades,” Lewis told the Commons, “but it is a post-conflict society and there do remain elements of fragility.”

An escalation of violence in some areas of Northern Ireland has been evident for the past 10 days: with the most dramatic seen at a peace wall separating two communities in west Belfast, where people as young as 14 were involved. A bus was also burnt out, and left the driver badly shaken.  

So far, 88 police officers have been injured, there have been 18 arrested and 15 people have been charged. 

Lewis told the Commons that there have also been other incidents of unrest in Newtownabbey in north Belfast, Ballymena, Cookstown, and Derry. In recent days they have reduced to isolated incidents only.

“It is tragic and deeply concerning that young people have been engaged in and encouraged into this violence, and will now end up with criminal records,” he said, adding that the factors behind it are “complex and multi-faceted”. 

He also said that although the European Commission has apologised and recognised their mistake of suggesting to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, it “definitely had an impact” on Northern Ireland.

Representatives of civic society made that clear, Lewis said, adding that it has had “a lasting effect on people’s sense of identity”.

Johnson ‘not a casual observer’

coronavirus-wed-apr-7-2021 Source: PA

Today, over the course of an hour, Lewis answered 31 questions from MPs about recent violence in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Protocol, national identity, and how economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic would affect the “post-conflict society”.

Labour MPs in particular criticised UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson for telling unionists and loyalists that there would be no border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain when he knew “full well” that his Brexit deal would result in new checks along the Irish Sea.

“He is not a casual observer to these events,” Labour’s Louise Haigh said, MP for Sheffield.

Labour’s Paul Blomfield, MP for Sheffield, said that Johnson had agreed to the Protocol and promoted it without being honest to the people of the North about what it meant:

Either he didn’t understand what he was signing up to, or he didn’t care about telling the truth. Which was it?

Lewis said that Northern Ireland was an “integral and fixed part of the United Kingdom’s customs territory”. He emphasised that there needs to be as great an importance placed on east-west relations under the Good Friday Agreement, as there was on north-south.

SDLP MP Colum Eastwood said he was “disappointed” at the “lack of acceptance of culpability” from the UK government about how “they haven’t been honest with the unionist community” about how Brexit checks would work in practice.

Despite what the Secretary of State said, policing may be devolved, but peace is not devolved, we all have a responsibility to deal with this.

What DUP MPs said

DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson called on the British government to replace the Northern Ireland Protocol, and thanked police officers for “impartially” applying the rule of law.

Jeffrey told the Commons: “[Louise Haigh] put her finger on it when she said that the issue here is trust – and taking the peace process forward has to be built on trust.”

He said “trust was broken” in relation to the Bobby Storey funeral, and said there was a “two-tier policing” in Northern Ireland, as well as the barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

“We were told [this] would not happen, and [they] have happened. They undermine the sense of identity and the place of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom.”

Lewis replied: “As [Donaldson] knows, we took unilateral action just a few weeks ago to ease some of the issues and issues that would have made matters even more difficult as I suggested at the time. I think it is now very clear they were the right actions to take.”

This is making reference to the UK government’s decision to unilaterally to extend by six months grace periods for Brexit checks required on parcels, plants, and supermarket goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

“I think, through that, people can see that we are determined to deal with some of the problems and the issues there (with) the Protocol.”

DUP MP Carla Lockhart for Upper Bann asked Lewis whether he accepted how deep anger is in unionist communities, and goes “far beyond those who have taken to the streets in recent days?”

“Will the Secretary of State take any opportunity to point out to his Irish and European colleagues whose belligerent approach has exacerbated the difficulties that the rigorous implementation of the Protocol is not only inconsistent with the Belfast Agreement, but is also, even before it is being implemented in full, causing societal difficulties in Northern Ireland?”

Brandon Lewis replied: “We are determined to work through these issues and make sure that the Protocol is one that can work for everybody in a sense that is pragmatic, flexible and free-flowing trade for GB to NI.”

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Jim Shannon said that violence over the past few days was “unjustifiable”, but added that “people are dismayed and angered, their frustration is boiling over, they feel like second class citizens.”

What did other MPs say?

Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) called on the Prime Minister to “step up to the plate” and demonstrate leadership.

Carmichael told the Commons: “For years the Government have been warned that peace in Northern Ireland was a delicate and fragile thing, and that it was not to be taken for granted.

“The fact that we have reached this point, I think, illustrates sadly only too well the recklessness of the position of the Prime Minister in particular with regard to the position of Northern Ireland and our departure from the European Union.”

Brandon Lewis replied that Johnson “has been involved in this all the way through”.

With reporting from the Press Association.

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