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Irish republican party Sinn Fein asks Canada to halt trade talks with U.K.

OTTAWA — An Irish political party pushing to unify the island of Ireland wants Ottawa to halt post-Brexit trade talks with Britain, arguing that London is undermining the agreement that brokered peace between Catholics and Protestants.
A Loyalist mural painted on a wall in east Belfast, Northern Ireland, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Peter Morrison

OTTAWA — An Irish political party pushing to unify the island of Ireland wants Ottawa to halt post-Brexit trade talks with Britain, arguing that London is undermining the agreement that brokered peace between Catholics and Protestants.

"It is the duty of friends to sometimes pull each other up, whenever they are behaving in a way which is not acceptable," said Sinn Fein member of Parliament John Finucane.

This week, the Belfast MP, who sits in the United Kingdom's House of Commons, travelled to Toronto and Ottawa to ask Canadian leaders for their help.

He wants them to nudge Britain to abide by the rules that have historically allowed seamless travel betweenNorthern Ireland, mainland Britain and the Republic of Ireland. 

Sinn Fein operates in both countries. The party was once the political wing of the Irish Republican Army, a Catholic militant group embroiled in three decades of armed conflict with the British over the status of Northern Ireland, which is a region of Britain.

The conflict largely ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement, which set out rules for the U.K. and Ireland to maintain peace, including an effectively invisible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which remains part of the European Union.

After Britain left the EU, the two countries negotiated an agreement that allows for customs checks of goods transiting in the sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. 

The move avoided the need for a hard borderon the island, while annoying those who want to keep the region as a regular part of the U.K.

But this spring, Britain tabled legislation to curtail the border rules, which the European Commission argues violate international law. 

The British government is also modifying human-rights legislation in ways that Amnesty International argues will violate the Good Friday Agreement, though London insists otherwise.

"We are dealing with a British government, through numerous examples, that seems to have very little respect for international law or indeed international agreements," Finucane argued.

Washington has cited those concerns in tapping the brakes on trade talks with Britain, while London has resorted to talking with individual American states as it tries forming post-Brexit trade links.

Meanwhile, Canada launched formal trade talks with Britain in March to replace the interim deal that followed Brexit. 

But Finucane wants Ottawa to make those trade talks conditional on the U.K. respecting rules aimed at avoiding a reignition of sectarian conflict.

"It (should be) not even allowing a trade deal negotiation to get off the ground, if there's damage to the Good Friday Agreement," he said.

Trade Minister Mary Ng had no comment on his request.

"Canada will always support maintaining the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement," spokeswoman Alice Hansen wrote.

In a statement, the British government said its priority is to protect the agreement.

"Our focus has been, and will always be, preserving stability in Northern Ireland," wrote Ottawa high commission spokesman Tom Walsh.

"The U.K.'s preference has always been for a negotiated solution, but we have also said we need to resolve the situation in Northern Ireland soon," he wrote, saying this is the purpose of the legislation Britain tabled this spring.

Finucane noted that Canadian officials played a part in forming the Good Friday Agreement in the first place — including former Supreme Court justice Peter Cory and Gen. John de Chastelain.

"Canada has invested too much. The international community has invested too much to allow it to be undermined or indeed undone by the actions of the British government," he said.

Sinn Fein is also pushing for a citizens' assembly on what a united Ireland would look like, arguing that census data, electoral trends and polls suggest growing support for unity.

In May, voters handed Sinn Fein the largest share of seats in Northern Ireland's assembly, marking the first time a Catholic party has outranked Protestant groupings in the region.

Finucane said that's due, in part, to the chaos resulting from Brexit, which he argues has made it less appealing for the region to remain part of the United Kingdom.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 18, 2022.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press

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