A former Northern Ireland secretary has said the current Government has “lost trust as an honest broker” in the region.
Lord Hain said amid the latest stalemate in the powersharing administration at Stormont that the Government is no longer trusted in the way it was when led by former prime ministers John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
The Assembly is currently unable to function after the DUP refused to nominate a Speaker or ministers until the UK Government takes action to address concerns over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is opposed by unionists as a border in the Irish Sea.
During a meeting of the House of Lords Northern Ireland Sub-Committee, Lord Hain questioned how opposing positions by the Stormont parties over the post-Brexit arrangements can be brought together without that trust.
He also said the announcement by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss of intended legislation to override parts of the protocol has damaged relations with the EU.
“Frankly, there isn’t the trust that you need for negotiations to succeed,” he said.
“People will make more concessions, in my experience, to HMG if they trust you fully and if they don’t think you will simply pocket those and then up the ante through legislation or whatever.
“That trust issue is critical.”
Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly responded by saying the Government’s desire is to protect the Good Friday Agreement, get the Assembly running again, and ensure good relations and stable trade across the UK and Ireland.
He acknowledged tensions and “maybe even a degree of distrust”, but said the Government “will find a way of working through that”.
“I think that the landing zone is the fact that, pretty much across the board, there is a recognition that the protocol needs adjusting; even the voices that are most supportive of the protocol accept the fact it is not perfect,” he told the committee.
“The voices who are very anti-protocol, I think their concerns can be addressed if we can demonstrate the changes to the protocol, sort out those pinch points and those concerns, and I think we can demonstrate to those voices the protocol can work for them as well.
“If we can do that, then I think actually we can get the parties back together. I think we have a credible chance of getting the Executive back up and running and striking a deal with the EU.
“There are lots of moving parts and we don’t pretend it is simple or straightforward.”
Mr Cleverly reiterated the Government’s position that its preference is to resolve the issues with the protocol via a negotiated agreement with the European Union.
However, he said the timescale of a legislative Bill to override parts of the protocol without the approval of the EU would be months rather than years.
He said the response from the EU to the legislation was “disappointment rather than anger”, adding that the personal relationships between the negotiating teams “remain cordial”.
Mr Cleverley said there has been no “flinging over the chess table and storming out of the room”.
“I think there is genuinely a desire to get this resolved and there is no desire on either side of the table to have a row about this, but there are issues that need to be addressed… but if we’re able to get a negotiated settlement through the protocol which addresses these concerns we would be more than happy to rely exclusively on that,” he said.
Pressed on the current state of negotiations, Mr Cleverly said a formal date has not been agreed for the next meeting, but insisted there is a desire on both sides to keep talking, and channels remain open.