Taoiseach Micheál Martin has warned that the UK government is going to cause serious damage to its reputation internationally if proceeds with plans to unilaterally change parts of the Northern Ireland protocol as other countries will have reservations about trusting the UK in future treaties.
Mr Martin said that the European Union needs to know it can trust the UK on whatever future deal that might emerge over the Northern Ireland protocol but that was going to be very difficult if the UK reneges on the existing deal and goes ahead with unilateral plans to amend the mechanism.
Asked about UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s comments that what foreign secretary Liz Truss was proposing was nothing more than “a bureaucratic simplification” of the rules governing the protocol, Mr Martin dismissed Mr Johnson’s attempt to downplay what is being proposed.
“Well, you know the British government has a tendency to ‘big up’ decisions like this and then once they announce them, to try and trivialise them — essentially announcing the breaching of an international treaty is pretty serious stuff and can’t be put to one side,” he said.
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“That is because it is a very serious issue because it goes to the heart of the issue of trust and the European Union needs to have a trusted partner to negotiate with — the next deal has to be one, if there is to be further negotiation and a deal … that it is going to be adhered to.
Mr Martin said that was a fundamental point and the British government needs to reflect on it before it effectively reneges on an international treaty that it had negotiated, and its parliament had endorsed to help prevent the emergence of a hard trade border on the island of Ireland.
“For a country like the United Kingdom to renege on an international treaty is something that does present a new low point because the natural expectation of democratic countries, like ourselves, the UK, and all across Europe, is that we honour international agreements that we enter into.
“And this agreement was ratified by the British parliament, it was approved by the British prime minister and in our view the only way to resolve issues is around the operation of the protocol is to have substantive negotiations between the United Kingdom government and the European Union.”
Speaking at the expansion of the new Park Place Technologies facility in Blarney in Cork, Mr Martin rejected the claim that the European Union had been very inflexible in its approach to try and get and resolution to the standoff between the UK and the EU over the protocol.
“We do not accept the presentation by the British government and certain ministers to the effect that the European Union is inflexible, that is most definitively not the case, the EU has been very proactive for the last year endeavouring to seek solutions around the operation of the protocol.
“Last October Maroš Šefčovič published very substantive proposals but — there was no reciprocation and detailed engagement [from the UK side] — now there was a period leading up the [Northern Ireland Assembly] election when one did not expect, to be frank, detailed negotiations.
“But after the assembly elections, people did anticipate there would be substantive negotiations and the British government is still saying it wants those substantive negotiations with the European Union so I would say to the British government, ‘enter into those negotiations now’.”
Mr Martin said the British government would also want to reflect carefully on what it was doing in terms of the impact on Northern Ireland industry as the changes proposed by foreign secretary Liz Truss could prove hugely counterproductive for sectors such as manufacturing, dairy and meat.
“Europe has met the business interests in Northern Ireland, I met with them recently – the sectors like manufacturing, dairy, meat, are benefitting from the protocol and many people in business are very concerned about the regulatory framework being put forward by the British government.
“Surveys that have been done by the likes of the Business Working Group in Northern Ireland would indicate many businesses are managing and can manage the protocol — there are sectors that need attention and unionism has raised legitimate issues, but the European Union wants to resolve those,
“The Irish Government wants to facilitate that, by utilising the expertise of industry because some of proposals put forward by Liz Truss, would, for example, be counterproductive in terms of the dairy industry and the meat industry because you need full traceability of products from end to end.”
Mr Martin reiterated his belief there was a genuine desire on the part of the European Union to resolve the standoff over the protocol to the benefit of all, but that desire which he had witnessed at the very top of the EU needed a reciprocal response from Westminister.
“I met with President von der Leyen of the European Parliament last week, I met with vice-president Šefčovič, the European Union wants to engage in a substantive deal with the United Kingdom government to bring this issue to a conclusion, to resolve it.
“The only way it can be resolved is through a negotiated deal and unilateralism does not work, it has never worked in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, and I am very concerned that we are still witnessing a denial of democracy because we have had an election, but no assembly convened.
“The United Kingdom have not really seriously engaged since last autumn in such negotiations so it’s pointless saying they had no choice but to do this. They had a choice, they still have a choice — they still say they want to engage in those negotiations — that’s the only way this is going to be resolved.”