Keir Starmer has warned that the situation in Northern Ireland is “fragile”, as the standoff with Brussels over the implementation of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal continues.
The Labour leader has met community groups and politicians from all the main parties during a three-day visit to Northern Ireland, where he previously worked for six years.
“I’ve been struck by the fragility of the situation here and that’s the word that everybody is using – that things are fragile,” he told the Guardian.
He said lack of trust had repeatedly come up in his conversations, in particular in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol.
The protocol was negotiated by Johnson in an attempt to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and involved the UK accepting some checks on goods between mainland Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
But the implementation of the agreement has been fraught with difficulty, with the EU accusing the UK of failing to meet its obligations.
“There’s a very strong feeling here that the prime minister knew what he was negotiating with the protocol. He then mis-sold it, wasn’t straight about what the implications were, and he’s now dumping responsibility for making it work,” he said.
“There’s a strong sense that he’s taking people here for fools, and they’re not fools in Northern Ireland. He may think he’s fooling his backbenchers, pleasing some people within his party, but in Northern Ireland, nobody’s taken in by this and there’s a real lack of trust.”
The EU recently agreed to extend by three months the grace period before mandatory checks were due to be introduced on products including British sausages to be sold in Northern Ireland.
But the two sides remain deadlocked over the practicalities, with the UK accusing Brussels of taking an “excessively purist interpretation” of the agreement.
Johnson’s Europe minister, Lord David Frost, has said he will announce in the coming days how the UK proposes to resolve the impasse.
Starmer said Johnson should take on the job of resolving the situation himself.
“The prime minister should take personal responsibility. And that’s what previous prime ministers have done in the honest broker role: somebody who understands and respects both communities, and is able, because they’re trusted to bring people together over difficult issues. That is what is missing with this prime minister.”
He added that Frost appeared to be “keener to pick fights than to find solutions. And over here in Northern Ireland, that is not the way forward”. He suggested a veterinary agreement between the two sides would be a good starting point for resolving the issue.
As well as the protocol, Starmer said he had heard concerns about the government’s proposal to impose an across-the-board statute of limitations on prosecutions relating to the Troubles.
Conservative backbenchers including the former defence minister Johnny Mercer have been pressing for an amnesty for forces veterans who served in Northern Ireland, but Starmer said a statute of limitations was not the right approach.
“A blanket amnesty is simply wrong in principle: but more importantly, here’s the difference I think between the way Boris Johnson approaches this the way I would approach this: any discussion about legacy should always start with those most directly affected.By that I mean, the victims who’ve lost loved ones, or who were injured themselves,” Starmer said.
“We were talking to them yesterday, and they’ve described how the pain they still feel, and the fact that affects their children, their siblings.”
In Derry on Friday, Starmer met Sara Canning, the partner of the murdered journalist Lyra McKee, who now campaigns to bring different communities in Northern Ireland together. “It was pretty amazing to walk over Peace Bridge with her this morning,” he said.