Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney has called for “pragmatism and flexibility” in implementing the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol, saying rising tension over the arrangement has polarised politics there.
Coveney backed steps to ease the operation of the protocol as Britain and the EU seek “workable solutions” to problems that have delayed goods shipments into Northern Ireland and led some companies to stop sales to the region.
“Pragmatism and flexibility within the confines of the protocol actually strengthens the protocol. It doesn’t weaken it,” Coveney told the Financial Times in an interview.
“We shouldn’t see flexibility as a weakness or a concession. In fact, this is ensuring that we create an acceptance for and a full implementation of the protocol.”
The protocol requires goods flowing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to follow EU customs and internal market rules, but Boris Johnson’s UK government has demanded an “urgent reset” because of the strains this has placed on commerce.
The regime is supposed to maintain an open land border with the Irish Republic to protect the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that settled three decades of political violence in Northern Ireland. But tensions escalated last month when the European Commission threatened to suspend parts of the protocol to control coronavirus vaccine exports.
That move, controversial and quickly reversed, has emboldened opposition to the protocol among Northern Ireland’s pro-British unionists who wanted the region to leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK.
“Our focus has to be to try to listen to businesses and in particular to unionism in Northern Ireland and to try to respond to the concerns that have been outlined in as comprehensive a way as we can but — and I think it’s important to stress this — within the confines of the protocol,” Coveney said.
Solutions could be found to address problems that have created “real frustration”, but he warned the UK that some of its demands “cannot be met” by flexibility. He also insisted there was no scope to scrap the protocol, an option Johnson has refused to rule out by threatening to remove Irish Sea trade barriers.
Coveney suggested Dublin would support “modest extensions” to grace periods, soon to expire, that have delayed the requirement for stringent new red tape but said “permanent grace periods” were not possible.
“We know that there are issues in relation to implementation that need to be resolved and we know that there are a series of asks here in terms of pragmatism and flexibility,” he said.
“We need to approach both with a view to trying to get a partnership to move this protocol forward — that can move away from the kind of polarised politics that we’ve seen over the last two weeks, particularly in Northern Ireland linked to the protocol, which very much had moved into the realm of identity politics, which is a dangerous space to move into.”
Ireland’s recent rhetoric over the protocol has irritated some other European member states.
Dublin was particularly vociferous in its criticism of the commission's handling of vaccine export restrictions, highlighting the enormous sensitivity of any measures affecting the Irish border.
The commission’s move was sharply criticised by Tom Hanney, Ireland’s EU ambassador, in a meeting of senior diplomats. While he lambasted the “very serious mistake” made on January 29, other member states instead stressed the need for unity over the bloc's vaccine strategy.
Tensions grew last week when Micheál Martin, Irish premier, called on both the UK and the EU to cool the rhetoric surrounding Northern Ireland. His apparently even-handed criticism of the two sides did not go unnoticed in Brussels.
“There is a growing concern that Dublin is tempted to follow a policy of equidistance towards the EU and the UK on Northern Ireland,” one EU diplomat said.
“The EU has steadfastly supported Ireland throughout the Brexit negotiations. It would be a rather risky strategy if the Irish government were to be seen as playing with European goodwill and solidarity.”
Coveney insisted Ireland was firmly in the EU camp, but said the country and its “friendly neighbour”, the UK, had joint guardianship over peace in Northern Ireland. “We have an obligation to be an EU member state, to protect the integrity of the EU single market, we’re committed to that, that’s our future, no one should question that,” he said.
“But also we have a responsibility to manage a peace process, relationships on this island and relationships between Britain and Ireland. At any time in history when those relationships have been in poor shape, it’s caused lots of other problems too.”
He added: “It’s about recognising . . . the tensions that [people in Northern Ireland] live with and the polarisation in the politics there and it’s about ensuring that the protocol can be implemented with goodwill and will be supported in four years' time when [the regional assembly at Stormont votes] on it.”