Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald on Wednesday (18 May) said Britain’s proposals to override some post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland were “astonishing” and yet another move by London that only serves to boost the Irish nationalist party’s quest for a united Ireland.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss set out steps on Tuesday to try to break a deadlock with the European Union on the Northern Ireland protocol, lining up a new law to unilaterally ease the movement of goods if talks with Brussels fail.
The move further inflamed relations with the EU, including neighbouring Ireland, which said the path chosen by London was of great concern. Sinn Fein, which became the largest party in British-run Northern Ireland for the first time at elections this month, added its disapproval on Wednesday.
“My first reaction is one of dismay, again, because this is just a repeat performance of the kind of bad faith, bad will approach of the British government,” McDonald told Reuters in an interview in her office in the Irish parliament, where Sinn Fein is the main opposition party.
“I mean, it is astonishing, really, that they propose to legislate to break international law … For the life of me, I cannot understand how any responsible government would regard that as a good look.”
Truss has said the legislation would not break international law and that she would publish the government’s legal position soon.
“Front and centre”
Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), became the first party seeking to leave the United Kingdom to come out on top at elections in Northern Ireland, an outcome McDonald described on Wednesday as a “watershed moment.”
Its main rival, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has refused to form the power-sharing administration both parties are obliged to establish under a 1998 peace deal until the protocol is replaced.
McDonald said the DUP “want to have it every which way” on the issue and that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson must tell the truth to pro-British unionists that the protocol will be finessed but is here to stay.
She accused Johnson of stoking unionists’ sense of grievance that the protocol erodes their place in the UK by creating the impression that it could be done away with. “Boris Johnson has been dishonest with Ulster unionism,” she said.
However, she said London’s actions since the 2016 referendum to leave the EU – that a majority in Northern Ireland opposed – had weakened the UK’s standing in its smallest constituent nation and boosted the case for Irish unity.
McDonald, whose party is by far the most popular in Ireland ahead of elections in 2025, said she was sure a referendum on leaving the UK would happen in the next decade.
The holding of such a vote is at the discretion of the British government, and opinion polls have consistently shown a majority of voters favour remaining part of the UK.
“The consequences of this [Brexit] are deep and they are long-lasting, and without a shadow of a doubt it has put that debate around Irish reunification front and centre,” McDonald said, with Ireland’s tricolour flag flying behind her desk.