Northern Ireland protocol: Dublin and Brussels sceptical on new UK tone

‘It’s just words. Welcome words, but let’s see the actions,’ say Irish official as Government takes a wait-and-see approach

The Government remains sceptical about Britain taking a new approach to negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol, with fresh talks on resolving the deadlock over the post-Brexit arrangement set to begin this week.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin on Monday acknowledged an apology by minister of state at the Northern Ireland Office Steve Baker for failing to understand Irish concerns during previous Brexit talks, describing it as “honest” and “very helpful”.

But senior Government sources said that while a change in tone from London was welcome, they were waiting to see if it would be accompanied by a change in substance. Several sources confirmed a wait-and-see attitude was being taken in Dublin and Brussels, with one saying they were “not that excited” about the apparent UK change of approach.

Irish officials plan to wait to see if British red lines — such as the demand that the European Court of Justice no longer has a role in adjudicating on disputes over the protocol — remain or whether there is a new willingness to negotiate on these. They are also keen to see if the British government proceeds with the legislation to set aside the protocol.

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The European Commission confirmed on Monday that technical talks were set to begin this week between EU and UK government officials.

“We need to find the solutions to bring predictability, certainty to people in Northern Ireland,” a spokesman said. “We have been standing ready for a long time now to find the solutions, to negotiate.”

Senior sources in Dublin said that any British attempt to strike a bilateral agreement with the Government on the protocol would be resisted. “We won’t be separated from the EU,” one said. “Will we make a few changes or avert our eyes in a way that would ultimately undermine our place in the single market? No way.”

Speaking about the upcoming talks after a meeting of the Eurogroup on Monday, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe said: “I do believe a window of opportunity exists to reach an agreement. I do believe such an agreement would be a very valuable signal regarding the co-operation between the United Kingdom and European Union.”

Sources in Brussels were also cautious about the latest talks, with one saying that the chances of progress would depend on how the British side engaged. “It’s just words. Welcome words, but let’s see the actions,” one Irish official said.

British prime minister Liz Truss’s surprise announcement that she would attend the first summit of the European Political Community, a meeting of 44 EU and non-EU leaders in Prague on Thursday, has boosted hopes of a reset in EU-UK relations. The summit aims to foster greater regional unity on geopolitical questions such as the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times