By James Ward, PA
Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has said he wants to see an agreement on the Protocol reached by the end of February.
Mr Coveney said he does not want to see the Northern Ireland Assembly election in May become dominated by the “polarising” issue.
It comes after UK foreign secretary Liz Truss held her first meeting with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic since taking over Brexit negotiations following the resignation of Lord Frost.
Speaking on Friday, Mr Coveney said the meeting marked a “reset” in the relationship between the EU and UK teams, which is now “in a better place than we’ve seen for a while”.
He said: “From my conversations with both sides, I think that process will be a very serious one.
“I think in people’s minds, really, we would like to have, if possible, these issues resolved by the end of February, so that the elections in Northern Ireland can move ahead without being dominated by the Protocol issues, right the way to polling day.
“Elections in the North are often polarising enough affairs without having the added complexity and tension around the Protocol and its implementation.
“So I think everybody is conscious of their responsibility in terms of trying to bring some stability and certainty to Northern Ireland in the context of Brexit, and the Northern Ireland Protocol.”
Ms Truss said there is a “deal to be done” following her meeting with Mr Sefcovic.
However, she refused to rule out the possibility the UK could invoke Article 16 – suspending part of the arrangements in the Protocol – if they could not agree a way forward.
Mr Coveney insisted the Protocol is here to stay, and that he did not expect the UK to remove the threat of Article 16 until a deal is agreed.
He told RTÉ Radio One: “The Protocol is there. It’s part of an international treaty, it’s part of international law.
“And so the focus really on the EU side is how do we implement this Protocol in a way that is pragmatic and flexible, and takes on board the genuine concerns that have been raised in Northern Ireland?
“I think if both sides work on that basis, there is a landing zone that can be agreed over the next six or eight weeks.
“As an Irish Government perspective, we’ll be working to try to assist that process.”
Mr Coveney said he did not expect the UK government to follow through on its threat to trigger Article 16.
He added: “I don’t expect that the UK side will take something like the use of Article 16 off the table, until there’s an agreement. That’s just the nature of negotiations
“But I have to say, I think the consequences of the triggering of Article 16, in a way that sets aside large elements of the Protocol would be hugely damaging to the relationships that we’re now trying to build to solve these issues through negotiation and good politics.”
British prime minister Boris Johnson’s future looks uncertain, amid controversy over alleged lockdown-breaking parties at No 10 Downing Street.
I appreciate @trussliz's hospitality. A chance to discuss the implementation of the IE/NI Protocol, in particular.
Now it's time to start taking issues off the table. We instructed our teams to pursue intensive talks next week, before we meet on 24/1.
— Maroš Šefčovič🇪🇺 (@MarosSefcovic) January 14, 2022
But Mr Coveney said those issues could not distract from the task of resolving the dispute around the Protocol.
“Who knows what will happen in British politics in the weeks ahead,” he said.
“But my focus and the focus of our staff is on solving problems that have been around for too long.
“And to allow Northern Ireland to move on with certainty from this ongoing debate around the implementation of the Protocol that has caused such, you know, polarised opinion and tension in Northern Ireland.
“I think that’s why Liz Truss is there. I think it’s a good thing that the Brexit issues and the Protocol issues are back in the foreign office in London, rather than in a separate unit, led by Lord Frost.
“There are big issues at the moment that Britain and the EU should be working together on, and I think Liz Truss sees that.”