By Jonathan McCambridge and James Ward, PA
DUP leader Edwin Poots has held “frank discussions” with Taoiseach Micheál Martin about tensions surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Mr Poots made his first visit to Government Buildings in Dublin since becoming party leader, where he said that the North cannot be a “plaything” of the EU.
A new raft of checks on goods at the ports of Belfast and Larne under the terms of the protocol have sparked anger among unionists.
Mr Poots had earlier attended a virtual meeting of the Stormont party leaders’ forum before he vowed that there would be “very frank discussions” in his meeting with Mr Martin.
He added: “There is a lot of anger in Northern Ireland currently about the Northern Ireland Protocol; that manifested itself on the streets a number of weeks ago when we had the greatest level of street violence that has been seen for many years.
“We really need to recognise that the protocol, as it currently exists, is not deliverable and must go.”
Mr Poots continued: “I believe there are solutions which can be achieved to ensure that the single market is protected and there are no borders on the island of Ireland and can also deal with the issue of the barriers that have been erected between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
“Every single person is finding that their food costs are going to go up as a consequence of 15,000 checks per week on food which was exactly the same standards of production as it was last year.
“We are looking at animal movements being blocked, and most importantly we are looking at medicines and medical devices, of which over 90% come from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, having obstacles put in the way of coming, including new cancer drugs.
“These things are entirely unacceptable, not for me as a unionist, but for me as a leader of people in Northern Ireland because they impact every single person in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Poots reiterated his view that relationships between the North and the Republic had soured because of the protocol.
He said: “I have to say that our relationships between north and south have never been as bad.
“I do not blame the current taoiseach for that. I blame the past Taoiseach (Leo Varadkar).
“Northern Ireland cannot be a plaything of the European Union or indeed the southern government. Northern Ireland people are more important than that.
“We cannot have a situation where some of the lowest paid workers anywhere in the European Union are going to have their food costs driven up, where people who require medication cannot get that medication.”
A statement from the Taoiseach's office read: “The Taoiseach highlighted the critical importance of the stability and good functioning of the NI Executive and all the Institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, in these challenging times.
“Recognising and understanding the genuine concerns in unionist and loyalist communities around the Protocol, the Taoiseach said the focus needs to be on getting issues resolved and on reducing friction where we can. He made the point that an obvious way to make such an impact would be to reach agreement between the EU and UK on a temporary (SPS) veterinary agreement – which would do away with 80% of checks at NI ports.
“The Taoiseach highlighted the need to use the window that is now available in the EU-UK engagement to agree a roadmap on all of the outstanding issues.
“The two leaders also discussed the importance of practical North-South cooperation continuing, including through the framework of the NSMC.
“The two leaders agreed to remain in touch over the coming period."
The meeting with the Taoiseach came at the end of a busy day for Mr Poots. Earlier he had attended the Stormont agricultural committee where he denied that he had refused to attend any north-south ministerial meetings.
During the appearance he also defended a decision to temporarily withdraw staff from post-Brexit checks at ports earlier this year.
Mr Poots said he was “very concerned” about the risk to staff and a report of a threat against staff from a “coded source”.
Later he then attended the meeting of the Stormont party leaders forum where Northern Ireland’s spiralling waiting lists were discussed.