Michelle O’Neill has accused the UK Government of upping the ante over the Northern Ireland Protocol with a display of “extreme bad faith”.
Stormont’s deputy First Minister said the joint EU/UK committee on the implementation of the protocol should have been the forum for resolving issue around grace periods, rather than taking a “solo run” to unilaterally extend them.
Responding to the loyalist paramilitary move to withdraw support from the Good Friday Agreement in protest at the protocol, the Sinn Fein vice president questioned why they were still seeking to influence events 23 years after the peace accord.
“I think that the British government have again acted in bad faith and they have demonstrated by their very deed that they are untrustworthy, that they’re not reliable, that they’re not true to their word when it comes to a negotiation,” Ms O’Neill told an executive press conference in Dungannon, Co Tyrone.
“That’s form which the British government have demonstrated time and time again. In this case I believe they’re on the wrong side of public opinion and they’re clearly on the wrong side of international law.
“Unilateral actions actually only help to up the ante and create even more uncertainty. What needs to happen is that all sides of the negotiation need to get round the negotiating table, sit down and talk about how we’re going to iron out the issues that are the reality of a post-Brexit world – the hardest possible Brexit.”
First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster defended the UK Government move.
She said it did not deal with all the issues related to protocol trade disruption but it did mitigate some of them.
“The European Commission was simply not listening to what was going on in Northern Ireland,” she said.
“Therefore there was a need to act because of course these grace periods come to an end at the end of the month. If the UK Government hadn’t taken action that would have caused untold difficulties for our ports.”
On the loyalist paramilitary announcement on the temporary end of their support for the 1998 Belfast Agreement, Mrs Foster made clear she did not have advance notice of the move, which was outlined in a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson by the Loyalist Communities Council umbrella group.
“It’s not surprising to me after having met the LCC this day last week they were very clear about the difficulties with the protocol,” she said.
“I had not seen the letter before it went and why would I – this is a letter coming from the LCC to the Prime Minister and to the Taoiseach.
“I do welcome the fact that they have said they will use peaceful and democratic means, I very much welcome that.
“It’s so important that we deal with matters through politics and through the constitutional way of dealing with issues, whether that’s through politics or through the courts or whatever. I think that that is to be welcomed.”
Ms O’Neill criticised the loyalist groupings and questioned their ongoing existence.
“I think the question that needs to be answered is, 23 years after the Good Friday Agreement, why loyalist paramilitary groups still exist, way they’re still carrying out organised crime, racketeering and extortion, holding communities to ransom?” she said.
“I think everybody in political leadership has a responsibility to encourage and to tell these groups to leave the stage. There is no place for them in today’s society.”