Blog: Brendan Hughes: Labour leader Keir Starmer’s Brexit NI Protocol offer highlights Tory divisions – Belfast Live

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer risked being upstaged during his two-day trip to Northern Ireland.

Clashing with a dual Irish government visit by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Micheál Martin was far from ideal in any Labour Party efforts to gain favourable headlines.

But the Stormont party delegations and business leaders who held bilateral meetings with Sir Keir at Parliament Buildings recognised the importance of his trip.

Read more:Analysis: Not so Cleverly as Sinn Fein snub overshadows Foreign Secretary visit

For now, he remains the leader of the opposition in the House of Commons, but he could very well be the UK’s next Prime Minister.

Polling of voting intentions suggests Labour now has a strong and sustained lead over the Conservatives which could catapult them into Downing Street if replicated in a Westminster election.

Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie welcomed talks with Sir Keir, saying that Labour “could be the government in waiting”.

While Labour battled with the Irish government and Northern Ireland secretary for column inches on Thursday, Sir Keir had the spotlight all to himself the following day for his keynote speech at Queen’s University.

Excerpts were well-trailed in advance, with the Labour leader saying the Prime Minister must stand up to the “Brexit purity cult” of Eurosceptics on the Tory benches to resolve the Northern Ireland Protocol impasse.

He urged Rishi Sunak to “recognise past mistakes” the Conservative Party has made.

But beyond the criticisms of the Tory government’s mismanagement of Brexit, Sir Keir was making a significant offer to the Prime Minister.

The Labour leader said his party would help Mr Sunak get a protocol deal through Parliament if it fails to win enough support from Conservative MPs.

“If there is a deal to do in coming weeks – do it,” he said.

“Whatever political cover you need, whatever mechanisms in Westminster you require, if it delivers for our national interest and the people of Northern Ireland – we will support you.

“The time for action on the protocol is now. The time to stand up to the ERG (European Research Group of pro-Brexit Conservative MPs) is now.

“The time to put Northern Ireland above a Brexit purity cult, which can never be satisfied, is now,” he added, prompting applause from the assembled audience in South Belfast.

Sir Keir said there was a “small window of opportunity” to resolve the dispute on Irish Sea trading arrangements.

He said: “We just need to find a solution. And I want to commend the recent agreement on trade data-sharing, commend the EU, commend the government.

“If they are finally serious about a deal, there will be no sniping from us – I can promise you that.”

For Labour, the offer has the benefit of showcasing statesmanship from Sir Keir after years of Brexit causing strained relationships at Westminster.

It also helps the opposition highlight perceived weaknesses and divisions in the government, as any deal considered to be conceding too much to Brussels could trigger a Tory revolt.

Sir Keir said: “Northern Ireland can be prosperous under the protocol. But it requires leadership from you, Prime Minister.”

With a 70-plus majority in Parliament and prominent Brexiteers Chris Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker in the Northern Ireland Office, Mr Sunak is unlikely to need Labour’s assistance.

If any deal is on the horizon, the real challenge remains securing the support of the DUP. Without it, Stormont power-sharing could remain down for some considerable time to come.

READ NEXT:

For all the latest news, visit the Belfast Live homepage here. To sign up to our FREE newsletters, see here

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s