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Northern Irish unionists dismiss US congressman as insulting in Belfast talks

BELFAST — Unionist leaders in Northern Ireland ripped into a U.S. congressional delegation Thursday, accusing the visitors of insulting their community.

“It has been the most undiplomatic visit I’ve ever seen to these shores,” said Democratic Unionist leader Jeffrey Donaldson, whose party is blocking the revival of a cross-community government in Northern Ireland in protest against the post-Brexit trade arrangements in the region.

Unionists told the delegation leader, Democratic Rep. Richard Neal, they were livid over two remarks he made earlier this week and has defended since: that unionists were “planters” and their campaign against the protocol was a “manufactured” crisis.

“The language … displays an alarming ignorance of the concerns of unionism,” said Donaldson, whose party remains the largest on the union side following this month’s Northern Ireland Assembly elections.

But Neal, who has traveled to Northern Ireland periodically since the early 1990s, said he meant no offense and claimed to have soothed tensions during behind-closed-doors talks.

Neal insisted that unionist opposition to the protocol treaty — which requires EU checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. — was no reason to obstruct power-sharing, a cornerstone of the U.S.-brokered Good Friday accord of 1998. The DUP rejected the peace deal until 2007, when it formed a coalition alongside their longtime enemies in the Irish republican Sinn Féin party.

“I made the argument that this is a problem to be solved, not a crisis,” Neal told reporters inside Stormont Parliament Building overlooking Belfast. “As we had that discussion back and forth, I thought we were able to ameliorate some of the differences.”

Neal raised unionist hackles when, attempting a literary touch during appearances in the Republic of Ireland, he referred to hopes that “the Planter and the Gael” could reconcile.

To those familiar with the work of Northern Ireland writers, that most directly references a 1970 anthology co-authored by two of the region’s finest poets, the late John Hewitt and John Montague. Irish-American politicians often tap Irish poetry in their speeches.

But planters, in historical terms, are Protestant settlers sent by King James I from Britain to colonize the north of Ireland in the early 17th century.

Neal’s defense of the term touched a nerve in a community whose British identity is often questioned, a sensitivity exacerbated by rules that have made it easier to trade with the rest of Ireland than with Britain.

Unionists said the implication, for them, was that Irish-Americans still view them as interlopers in a land that isn’t their true home.

DUP lawmaker Jonathan Buckley said he’d told Neal “that in three days he has taken a sledgehammer to U.S. diplomacy and neutrality with regards to Northern Ireland and the protocol.” He called Neal’s mild characterization of their talks “bizarre.”

By contrast, Sinn Féin leaders emerged from their own meeting with the nine House of Representatives members claiming common cause.

Sinn Féin won more assembly seats than the Democratic Unionists this month and will gain the top power-sharing post of first minister for the first time — if the DUP drops its veto on progress.

“The DUP would prefer to be speaking about a war of words against this American delegation, as opposed to the fact that the DUP are blocking the formation of an executive. All the other parties want to form a government,” said First Minister-designate Michelle O’Neill, who was deputy first minister in the previous five-party coalition.

“The protocol can and should be made to work with smoother implementation. The delegation were very forthright in their messaging around that,” she said.

Sinn Féin successfully petitioned Thursday to reconvene the assembly next week to try again to elect a speaker, an essential first step being blocked by the DUP. O’Neill said she was challenging Donaldson to agree to “put ministers in posts and start to deliver for the public.”

But Donaldson said he wouldn’t budge until the U.K. government unilaterally halts EU checks at Northern Irish ports, a step unionists expect will happen as part of a promised bill at Westminster. He dismissed Sinn Féin’s reconvening of the assembly on Monday as a futile “stunt.”

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