Taoiseach: Protocol deal will be difficult but there is good faith on all sides

Micheál Martin was speaking as negotiations got under way between officials on Thursday afternoon.
Taoiseach: Protocol deal will be difficult but there is good faith on all sides

By Michelle Devane, PA

The Taoiseach has warned “difficulties” exist in reaching an agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol, but he said there is a “genuine desire” from all sides to do so.

Micheál Martin said space is now needed to allow the UK and the European Union to reach a resolution.

He was speaking as negotiations on the protocol got under way between officials on Thursday afternoon.

Earlier, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar conceded the protocol is a “little too strict”.

He said the protocol is working despite not being fully implemented, demonstrating there is room for “further flexibility for some changes”.

 

Speaking in Prague, Mr Martin said: “There is a genuine desire on all sides including the UK Government that there will be a negotiated resolution to this, but that doesn’t in any way understate the difficulties involved in arriving at a resolution.

“But I do think there’s good faith on all sides.

“If the will is there, issues can be resolved… I don’t want to comment any further other than to say there’s a process in place, I think we should create space to allow people to work out a resolution to this.”

The European Commission earlier this week confirmed the two sides will meet for technical level talks.

A meeting between Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and UK foreign secretary James Cleverly is scheduled to take place in London on Thursday evening.

It is the first bilateral meeting between the UK and Ireland since Liz Truss became UK prime minister.

On Friday, Mr Coveney will co-chair a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.

Brexit
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar discussed the protocol at an industrial relations conference in Dublin on Thursday (PA)

Mr Varadkar told reporters on Thursday morning: “We should not forget that the protocol is working. It was designed to prevent a hard border between north and south, and there is no hard border between north and south.

“It was designed to protect the integrity of the single market and it has, and also the Northern Ireland economy is outperforming the rest of the UK economically.

“But one thing that I would concede is that perhaps the protocol, as it was originally designed, was a little too strict.

“The protocol has not been fully implemented and yet it is still working.

“I think that demonstrates that there is some room for further flexibility for some changes that hopefully would make it acceptable to all sides.”

The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU as part of the Withdrawal Agreement and sought to avoid a hard border with Ireland post-Brexit.

Brexit
Simon Coveney, left, and Chris Heaton-Harris will co-chair a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (Niall Carson/PA)

But the arrangements have created trade barriers on goods being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

The protocol is vehemently opposed by many unionists in Northern Ireland and the DUP is currently blocking the formation of a powersharing executive in Belfast in protest.

Mr Varadkar said an agreement would be “very beneficial” as it would allow for the restoration of powersharing.

Stormont collapsed earlier this year amid a row over the protocol and has not returned despite elections in May.

The Fine Gael leader said there is a “window of opportunity” over the next couple of weeks to see if an agreement can be reached.

“That would be very beneficial for Ireland and Northern Ireland because it would allow us to get the executive up and running, and could be helpful for Britain as well in economic terms,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Tánaiste welcomed UK Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker’s apology over his previous “ferocious” negotiating stance on Brexit, but said it remains to be seen if it is significant.

Conservative Party Conference 2022
Steve Baker, the UK’s minister for Northern Ireland, has apologised over his previous ‘ferocious’ negotiating stance on Brexit (Aaron Chown/PA)

Mr Baker, a former strident Brexiteer and member of the pro-Brexit European Research Group of MPs, said relations with Ireland are not “where they should be”, and added that ministers need to act with “humility” to restore relationships with the Republic and the EU.

Mr Varadkar said: “It remains to be seen what the significance of them are, but they are very welcome comments and (I) would agree with the Taoiseach on that.”

Asked about the political instability surrounding Ms Truss, he said the Irish Government does not concern itself with the UK’s domestic politics.

“That’s just not the way we operate,” he said. “Liz Truss is the Prime Minister, and the British Government is the British Government, and the European Union, including Ireland will negotiate with them and try and come to an agreement if we can.

“We won’t concern ourselves about any individual country’s domestic politics.”

Legislation to enable the UK government to effectively tear up parts of the protocol is to return to Westminster on October 11th.

The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill has already cleared the House of Commons and will be debated at second reading by the House of Lords, which is expected to consider it at length, next week.

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