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US Congress delegation ‘most undiplomatic visit I’ve ever seen’ – Donaldson

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson (centre) speaking to the media in the great hall following his meeting with Congressman Richard Neal at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast (Brian Lawless/PA)
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson (centre) speaking to the media in the great hall following his meeting with Congressman Richard Neal at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast (Brian Lawless/PA)

A visit by a US delegation led by Congressman Richard Neal has been termed “the most undiplomatic to these shores” by the DUP leader.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson slated the language used as “unhelpful”, adding it “displays an alarming ignorance of the concerns of unionism”, with reference to Mr Neal’s comment about the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol being a “manufactured issue”.

However, Sir Jeffrey said he heard a “more realistic approach” during his party’s meeting with the delegation at Stormont on Thursday.

Brexit
UUP leader Doug Beattie (left) speaking to the media in the great hall following his meeting with Congressman Richard Neal at Parliament Buildings, Stormont, Belfast (Brian Lawless/PA)

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie said he feels the delegation “now understand the issues at hand”.

“I think they get it now but we will know if they get it if they come out and say, ‘We now understand’, because we made that point quite heavily to them,” he said.

The senior US Congressmen led his delegation in meetings with all Stormont parties on Thursday.

Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill said the attention was to be welcomed.

Brexit
Congressman Richard Neal (second right) and members of the Congressional delegation with Sinn Fein Vice President Michelle O’Neill for a meeting at Parliament Buildings, Stormont in Belfast (PA)

“We have had a very good meeting with them in terms of our shared objective, which is to have this Executive and Assembly up and running, supporting people through the cost-of-living crisis, addressing our health service needs,” she said.

“Very much welcome their commitment and we share their objective in terms of their support for the Good Friday Agreement.

“There is work to be done but I think the attention from this delegation is something that is very much to be welcomed.”

Meanwhile, Sir Jeffrey revealed his party confronted Mr Neal about his use of the term “planter” to refer to unionists in Northern Ireland.

He said his party colleague Jonathan Buckley told Mr Neal he is also a planter and that comparisons were made between Northern Ireland today and one of the most seismic events in US history, the Boston Tea Party.

Sir Jeffrey said that when tea chests were pushed into the harbour in Boston in 1773, the mantra was no taxation without representation.

“And I reminded Congressman Neal and his colleagues that this too is our mantra: that today Northern Ireland is subjected to laws and taxes into which it has no say, that not a single member elected to this Assembly can influence many of the laws that now oversee how we conduct trade in our country because they are imposed by the European Union, and there is no democratic accountability to this institution or any democratic institution in this country,” he said.

“So I reminded Congressman Neal that the principle of no taxation without representation applies to Northern Ireland and we need to sort that out and until we sort it out and see the solution being put in place we cannot make the progress that we want to see.”

Brexit
Congressman Richard Neal speaks to the media at Parliament Buildings, Stormont in Belfast, with the Congressional delegation (David Young/PA)

Earlier, as he arrived at Parliament Buildings, Mr Neal said Northern Ireland has endured far more grim moments than the current dispute over post-Brexit trade.

Power-sharing is on ice in the region after the DUP refused to re-establish a devolved executive following the recent election in protest at arrangements that have created economic barriers on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Unionist politicians have reacted angrily to remarks by Mr Neal in Dublin on Tuesday when he claimed the protocol dispute was a “manufactured issue”.

Standing in the Great Hall of Parliament Buildings, Mr Neal told reporters: “I have been in this hall many times, through far more grim moments than the one we’re currently witnessing, and I think that the role that we’ve (the US) offered, the dimension that we brought to bear, is overwhelmingly over all of these years been very helpful.

Brexit
The Congressional delegation visited Londonderry on Wednesday (David Young/PA)

“So, looking forward to what all the parties have to say.”

Mr Neal also spoke of the need to “duly honour” the 25th anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement next year.

“It’s an extraordinary success story,” he added.

Stormont is the latest stop on the US politician’s ongoing visit to the island of Ireland.

The delegation has also held meetings in London and Brussels during its protocol fact-finding mission.

Many unionists and loyalists are vehemently opposed to the protocol, claiming its requirement for checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea has undermined Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

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