By David Young and Cate McCurry, PA
The UK and EU are in “solution mode” on the Northern Ireland Protocol, with the next two months offering a “window of opportunity” to resolve the stand-off, the Taoiseach has said.
Micheál Martin was in Belfast on Friday to hold talks with Stormont’s political leaders on issues including the contentious post-Brexit trading arrangements that have created economic barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
His visit came on the back of an announcement by European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic on Thursday that the EU was preparing to table “far-reaching proposals” aimed at reducing the Irish Sea trade friction.
Mr Martin said he accepted problems with the “practical” operation of the protocol were issues of “genuine concern” to people in Northern Ireland.
“They do need resolution,” he told reporters.
“Maros Sefcovic has been really applying himself to this issue. I am in no doubt that the European Union is in solution mode and will be coming forward with proposals in relation to this issue.
“The United Kingdom government are signalling that they’re solution-focused as well. So, there is a window of opportunity over the next six weeks to two months to try and get these issues resolved to the mutual satisfaction of all, so that we can make the protocol work operationally for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland.”
Mr Martin added: “I have a view that given my dealings with Maros Sefcovic and my engagement with the European Commission, my engagement with the British government for the last number of weeks, that there is a view that people are in solution mode here, people want to get a solution to this, including the political parties in Northern Ireland.
“So, whenever people are in that mode of thinking, I think one can be hopeful, but I wouldn’t underestimate the challenges.
“I do believe that United Kingdom government and the European Union have to get down to really serious discussions on the proposals that will emerge shortly.”
He said the proposals from the EU and UK should be used as a “platform” to find resolutions.
Earlier, Mr Martin told a climate change event in Belfast that Brexit has brought “unique and significant implications” for the island of Ireland.
He insisted the protocol was a compromise, agreed between the EU and the UK, as the “best possible way to mitigate those implications”.
“I, and my Government, recognise the genuine concerns of some in Northern Ireland on certain aspects of the operation of the protocol,” Mr Martin added.
“We are engaging closely on these issues with all communities in Northern Ireland.
“My consistent position has been to get the protocol working as smoothly as possible for people and for business in Northern Ireland.
“I have no doubt about the readiness of the EU to engage in good faith in this same spirit.”
The Taoiseach said the EU Commission has been engaging “constructively” with the UK government on what could be done to limit the impact of the protocol in Northern Ireland.
“Progressing this work, in a spirit of partnership, working at EU-UK level for agreed solutions is the way forward,” Mr Martin added.
“I know that for business, certainty and predictability is key.”
He referenced the dual market access that the protocol offered Northern Ireland traders to sell unfettered into the UK internal market and the EU single market.
“The protocol does offer significant trade, business and employment opportunities for Northern Ireland. Business recognises this,” he said.
“Indeed, Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce’s own survey of members in July of this year found that two-thirds of firms believe that Northern Ireland’s unique status post-EU exit presents opportunities for the region.
“These opportunities are no accident. They are a positive consequence for Northern Irish business of the long and difficult negotiations on the protocol.
“Realising these opportunities – in trade and investment – should be the focus of all in this room, and we are ready to work with you in this.”