Michelle O’Neill urged unionists to stop playing silly games with the Northern Ireland Protocol, as she urged Stormont to focus on solutions to trading issues.
The deputy First Minister also stressed the need for the executive to develop a comprehensive strategy to capitalise on the region’s unique ability to sell freely into both the UK internal market and the EU single market.
Ms O’Neill’s remarks during Assembly question time came amid intensifying calls from unionist politicians in Northern Ireland to ditch Irish Sea trading arrangements that have created economic barriers between the region and the rest of the UK.
The main unionist parties in the region are all supporting a legal bid to challenge the Government over the protocol.
The Sinn Fein vice president fielded a series of questions on the protocol at the Assembly hours before a virtual Westminster debate on the issue – triggered after the DUP launched an e-petition requesting parliamentary time.
She told MLAs the disruption witnessed in the first few weeks of the protocol was a “direct consequence” of Brexit.
Ms O’Neill said there was a need to find resolutions and simplify the new regulatory and customs processes through agreed UK/EU structures – namely the joint committee on implementation.
“So what we need to all be focused on right now, instead of playing silly games, it needs to be about what provides certainty to businesses, to traders, to retailers,” said Ms O’Neill.
“What provides the certainty, what gives stability, what can we simplify, so let’s use the avenues that are in there in the Withdrawal Agreement and that is the joint committee.”
On opportunities linked to the protocol allowing Northern Ireland to sell freely into two markets, Ms O’Neill said: “We do have access to both markets, which is a strength which would be obviously the envy of many others in terms of their ability to trade.”
The deputy First Minister said work was under way with the Department of Economy, Stormont business support agency Invest NI, and all-Ireland body InterTradeIreland to develop that strategy.
“We need to see more of that and need to use our unique position to attract jobs, to attract investment here,” she said.
“There’s huge opportunity, I think, for us, so what we need to see is the dedicated economic strategy coming forward from the Department for the Economy.”
We do have access to both markets, which is a strength which would be obviously the envy of many others in terms of their ability to tradeMichelle O'Neil
During question time, DUP MLA Jonathan Buckley suggested advantages to the protocol “did not exist” and insisted it should be “destined for the dustbin where it belongs”.
Ms O’Neill replied: “My own personal view is, thank goodness for the protocol.
“What we’re experiencing right now is the fact that the British Government didn’t prepare, they didn’t work with businesses in terms of being ready for a post-Brexit world.
“They ran the clock down to December 31, there was no opportunity to transition into a new trading arrangement.
“What we’re dealing with now is the new trading reality as a direct result of Brexit.
“So what this executive has to focus on, what this Assembly needs to focus on, is actually ironing out the difficulties that have now arisen as a direct result of Brexit, is to work with the British Government and the EU side to make sure we get solutions to those things and then let’s look towards the opportunities for the future and let’s ensure that we grab all those opportunities.
“It’s around stability, it’s around certainty, and it’s not around playing games with the protocol that has been agreed over the course of four years.”
Another DUP Assembly member, Christopher Stalford, said the EU’s botched attempt to suspend an element of the protocol – by using Article 16 of the mechanism in the row over vaccine supply – should make the UK Government more willing to use the same device.
Ms O’Neill acknowledged the European Commission move in January was “wrong”, but she added: “You don’t fight fire with fire. You don’t fight back and say, ‘well, you know, they threw their dummy out of the pram, so let’s us do it too’.”
She told Mr Stalford: “Let’s find solutions, let’s find solutions to the Brexit that’s been foisted upon us by the Tories, which your party supported.”