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Jeffrey Donaldson accuses US Congressman visiting Dublin of 'slavish adherence to Sinn Féin dogma'

Richard Neal says it’s up to London to find a solution.

Neal in Government Buildings yesterday.
Neal in Government Buildings yesterday.
Image: RollingNews.ie

Updated May 24th 2022, 6:13 PM

DUP LEADER JEFFREY Donaldson has accused Congressman Richard Neal of “slavish adherence to Sinn Fein dogma” ahead of their meeting in Belfast on Thursday. 

Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts, is leading a delegation of senior US politicians to Europe on a fact-finding mission about the Protocol. 

Speaking today, Neal described the impasse over the Northern Ireland Protocol as “a manufactured issue”, adding that “it’s up to London” to find a solution.

Speaking to reporters in Dublin, Neal referenced polling following this month’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections which suggested “7% of the people” voted based on the Protocol. 

He said that while 80% of people expressed a desire to makes changes the Protocol, “you can say that about any piece of legislation I’ve ever had my hands on in my life”. 

In a tweet this afternoon, Donaldson responded to Neal’s comments saying: 

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 Fein dogma.

In a statement this evening, DUP MLA Diane Dodds described Neal’s comments as “outrageous”. 

“Richie Neal has always been a friend of Sinn Fein and quick to pay tribute to the IRA so his disrespect for unionists isn’t much of a shock but to suggest the more than 40% of MLAs elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly less than 20 days ago were ‘manufacturing’ their opposition to the NI Protocol is outrageous,” he said. 

The nine-strong bipartisan US delegation arrived in Europe last week and held talks in Brussels before travelling to London for talks with British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. 

The team has been in Ireland since the weekend, met with Taoiseach Micheál Martin yesterday and will travel to Belfast tomorrow for what Neal has described as two days of “serious” talks. 

Speaking today after a meeting with Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, Neal said that trade issues connected to the Protocol could be solved “quickly”. 

“We began in Brussels with purpose, moved to London, so we quickly heard divergent views. But as always we’re going to meet with everybody who has an interest here,” he said.

But the Protocol dispute seems to me to be a manufactured issue. I have on this delegation people who are experts on 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.

He added: “What we’ve heard so far clearly from European Union, is they want to find a solution. What we’ve heard from the Minister, the Taoiseach and the President, is they want to find a solution. We the congressional delegation want to find a solution. So I think now it’s up to London to help us all find a solution.”

Asked if he believed the Protocol issue was manufactured one, what the motivation might be to manufacture it, Neal said: “I hope this is not about domestic politics.”

Of the group’s meeting with Truss at the weekend and what specifically concerned the UK government, Neal said “there was a certain vagueness in the conversation.”

In a response to another US Congressman over the weekend, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the Protocol had the potential to “destroy the Good Friday Agreement”. 

Neal said today that the “historic” Good Friday Agreement “should be celebrated widely” and that the basis of the deal was “everyone giving something up”. 

“That’s what negotiation is,” he said. 

The congressmen also spoke about a previous congressional trip he took to Ireland over 30 years ago when Northern Ireland “was a militarised state” with 30,000 British troops “in an area the size of our state of Connecticut”. 

He described his bus being boarded by armed soldiers on the Donegal-Derry border:

The bus was mounted, the military had night-vision and full armaments as they searched the bus. What we did through the American dimension was to change that to now your phone pinging when you move across the border.

“This is a template for the world and I don’t understand here, in the almost the eve of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, why there would be any retreat, this should be celebrated widely,” he said.

US Congressional Visit 002 US Ambassador to Ireland Claire Cronin, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and US Congressman Richard Neal. Source: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said today that 53 of the 90 MLAs elected earlier this month “would vote for the Protocol in the morning if asked”.

The DUP has argued that there is no unionist majority for the Protocol in the Assembly but Coveney said today that there was “no cross community support for Brexit” either. 

Coveney added that he feels there has been deliberate confusion about the requirement for cross-community support on issues in Northern Ireland, saying this only applies within the Executive.  

“The other thing I think that is important to say is that the basis of the Good Friday Agreement is the principle of consent. The principle of consent is about what the majority of people in Northern Ireland want for their future. What is also important in the Good Friday Agreement is the principle of cross-community support,” he said. 

“Cross-community support in the Good Friday Agreement applies to decisions that are being made through a devolved government structure for Northern Ireland in Northern Ireland. Some have deliberately tried to confuse what the principle of consent is, with what cross community support is.”

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Seanad

neal Richard Neal in the Seanad today. Source: Oireachtas.ie

Addressing the Seanad this afternoon, Neal said “any incautious moves to undo the Protocol” could put the Good Friday Agreement at risk. 

“We need courage, dialogue and leadership from all sides to keep Northern Ireland secure and prosperous,” he said.

The Good Friday Agreement worked because it had something in it for all sides, it happened because those involved acted together in good faith and the hardest men and women and to make that agreement. Everybody gave up something to agree to this place.

Neal added that the delegation will head to Belfast tomorrow for “two very serious days with all the political parties”. 

“We want to meet with people so that we can understand the fallout from the UK’s decision to leave the EU has affected all of them and us. This message we will bring is firm clear and unambiguous. The number one priority for the United States on this island is to ensure that the hard won peace in Northern Ireland is preserved and reinforced.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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