British cabinet minister Jacob Rees Mogg accused of undermining key plank of the peace process
JACOB Rees Mogg has been accused of "provocatively undermining" a key plank of the peace process by disputing the British government's assertion that it has "no selfish strategic interest" in Northern Ireland.
The 1990 declaration of neutrality on the outcome of a future border poll by the then Secretary of State Peter Brooke was seen as a crucial intervention that paved the way for the IRA ceasefire four years later.
The senior Tory's landmark statement gave a clear indication that the British government would withdraw from Northern Ireland if a majority of the region's people supported such a move.
The pledge was copper-fastened eight years later with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement
But remarks by Mr Rees Mogg have raised questions about his government's commitment to what Mr Brooke said 31 years ago.
In his regular Moggcast podcast, the leader of the House of Commons said: "Somebody once said that the UK had no selfish or strategic interest in Northern Ireland – I dispute that.
"I think we have an interest in keeping the whole country together as a United Kingdom and therefore to have the protocol work in a way that it meant that there was a risk of a border in the Irish Sea is simply not what was intended when we agreed to it in the withdrawal agreement."
The former chair of the pro-Brexit European Research Group was responding to a question about the justification for the British government's unilateral extension of the protocol's grace period.
He said the move was "perfectly reasonable".
His remarks last night sparked an angry reaction from nationalists.
South Down MP Chris Hazzard said the Conservative government "have a selfish interest in protecting the elites".
"Regardless of the laughable words of Jacob Rees Mogg and others, time and time again the British government has demonstrated that it is more than happy to abandon unionists," he said.
"Brexit is the latest in a litany of examples of this and it is long past the time those within unionism realised that and began looking to a new future beyond the jingoistic rhetoric of the British government and worked with others to create a new Ireland."
SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole said Tory ministers expressing unionist preferences was "nothing new".
"What is new is a Tory minister provocatively undermining an historically significant underpinning statement of UK government handling of Northern Ireland," he said.
"It's one thing to state a preference for the union, it's another to appear to glory in rejecting a key foundation stone of our settlement."
In response a British Government spokesperson said: "This government has always been clear about the importance it places on the Union and Northern Ireland's integral place within it.
"Our commitment to promoting the positives of the Union for Northern Ireland does not negate the principles of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, including that any change in Northern Ireland's position will only come about based on the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland.
"Neither does it deny or invalidate the relationship that Northern Ireland and its people also share with Ireland."
Meanwhile, DUP MP Gregory Campbell challenged Secretary of State Brandon Lewis over the "temporary nature" of the extension to the protocol grace periods.
The East Derry MP asked if he grasped "the degree of resentment in unionism in Northern Ireland where the consent of the unionist community has now diminished to the point where radical actions and radical steps will have to be taken by his government as a matter of urgency?".