Assembly elections will not be a referendum on NI protocol, Alliance MP says

Minister Simon Coveney discusses Brexit with new UK counterpart Liz Truss for first time

The Assembly elections in May will not be a referendum on the Northern Ireland Protocol, the deputy leader of the Alliance Party has said.

Stephen Farry said there was no doubt that the protocol would be an issue for voters but he did not think it would dominate in the way that some parties have suggested.

The MP for North Down was the guest speaker at an online event hosted by the Institute of International and European Affairs on Friday, where he discussed the implications of continued wrangling over the post-Brexit mechanism.

He also said that Liz Truss, who has replaced Lord David Frost as the UK's main Brexit negotiator, was a fresh face who he hoped would come with a pragmatic approach to talks.


“Lord Frost did seem to take a huge personal interest in the discussion beyond what was in the interests of Northern Ireland and perhaps did not (conduct) the negotiations in the most constructive way,” Mr Farry said.

“So (with Liz Truss) we have a fresh face and it can’t do any harm in that regard. It’s important that she is prepared to be pragmatic over the coming days. I do believe that deals can be done on all the issues. I would not say I am optimistic yet because of the internal political dynamics of the Conservative party, and the DUP, but we live in hope.”

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and Ms Truss had what was described by sources as a "good and friendly" first meeting on the issue of Brexit and Northern Ireland on Thursday. They discussed the protocol, the UK's wider relationship with the EU and United Nations security matters including the crises in Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

Not dropping demands

While the meeting was described as “good”, British sources said Ms Truss would not be dropping demands for further compromises from the EU on the protocol.

In his address, Mr Farry said that being a pro-Europe party was in the DNA of Alliance and it campaigned against Brexit. Once all other options had been taken off the table post 2016, his party did not want the protocol to happen but recognised why it needed to be there.

“We want to change the protocol from a solid line down the Irish Sea to a dotted line with as few dots as possible,” he said, adding that an essential component to this would be a bespoke EU-UK veterinary agreement.

Mr Farry stood in to speak at the conference at the last moment when his party colleague Naomi Long had to withdraw because of an urgent issue.

He said polling by the University of Liverpool indicated that Brexit and the protocol was the fourth most important issue for voters ahead of the Assembly elections – after health, the economy and education.

Extreme elements

Referring to the parties who were making it an issue, he said there was a danger that unionism was playing to its most extreme elements in terms of the electorate.

“Most people want to focus on other issues and want the current debate to be brought to a conclusion,” he said, adding that the people out on the streets protesting were “the fringe of the fringe of the fringe”.

Asked about Sinn Féin’s constant calls for a border poll, he said it was the party’s “go-to line” which it was quite entitled to. ‘To my mind it is not the top issue in Northern Ireland. People do not want to press for it in the next 12 months.”

Nevertheless, he said, people across the board in Northern Ireland were reconsidering their approach to the wider constitutional issues post Brexit. - Additional reporting: Guardian