Sinn Féin to UK: Don’t unsettle Northern Ireland

The U.K. government would put Northern Ireland in a “very dangerous place” by unilaterally changing the region’s post-Brexit trade protocol, Sinn Féin Vice President Michelle O’Neill said Tuesday.

O’Neill intervened as the U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss prepared to announce plans to bring forward new legislation to override parts of the Northern Ireland protocol if the U.K. and EU cannot agree on changes to the existing deal in the weeks ahead.

Northern Ireland would be “caught out in the middle of a game of chicken,” O’Neill said, due to the threat of EU retaliation against a unilateral British move.

“Essentially what you can put it down to is they intend to go down this route of legislating to override an international agreement — that is not the way to conduct business,” O’Neill told Irish radio RTÉ. Such a move only “furthers instability politically,” she added.

The protocol, which has always been the thorniest part of the Brexit agreement, allows Northern Ireland to stay in the EU’s single market for goods while imposing EU customs controls on British goods as they arrive at ports in Northern Ireland.

“There are ways to smooth the implementation of the protocol. That is the way forward, not unilateral action,” O’Neill added.

If the U.K.’s proposed changes to the protocol are drastic enough, it could risk a trade war with the EU. Ireland’s European Commissioner Mairead McGuinness said Tuesday there would “have to be a strong reaction” if the U.K. does not treat the EU “as equals” in its approach to the protocol.

O’Neill’s Sinn Féin scored a historic win earlier this month in the Northern Irish parliamentary elections, which marked the first time a nationalist party had won the largest number of seats in the Northern Ireland assembly. As a result of the election, a majority of lawmakers in the assembly now support keeping the protocol.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has been vocal in its criticism of the way the protocol is operating and has so far blocked the formation of a government in Northern Ireland. The DUP, as the largest pro-British party in Northern Ireland, has a veto over setting up a new power-sharing administration, under the terms of the 1998 peace agreement.