Taoiseach Micheál Martin has accused the British government of being the main stumbling block to resolving the Northern Ireland protocol issue because, unlike the Democratic Unionist Party, it has failed to set out a possible solution.
In a blunt assessment of the political impasse that has paralysed the Northern Assembly, Mr Martin said it appeared to him the European Union no longer trusted Boris Johnson's government to work with it to resolve difficulties over the protocol.
The Taoiseach cited the role the UK's former chief Brexit negotiator David Frost played in trying "to torpedo" a proposed resolution last year.
His comments drew a prompt response from Mr Frost who suggested on Twitter that the British government’s stance was being “ignored or misrepresented”.
Speaking to reporters in Cork on Saturday, Mr Martin said: "The fundamental challenge with the Northern Ireland protocol may not be with unionism. I think it lies with the British government and the British government needs to resolve in itself what it actually wants.
“I think unionism has made a case to us and we have discussed it over time with the European Union. The European Union has met the unionist community and it has met with businesses and with industry in Northern Ireland and came forward with proposals
“But the European Union really has never got a landing zone from the British government in relation to the protocol. It’s very unclear what will suffice for the British government. We have some sense of what would work with unionism, but we don’t have that sense with the British government.”
Mr Martin instanced the decision last year of Mr Frost - then acting as Brexit minister for the British government - to raise the issue of the European Court of Justice on the eve of the publication of a proposed compromise by the European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic.
“Unionism did raise issues about the operation of the protocol which we did work with our European Union colleagues to try and deal with and, if you recall just prior to Maros Sefcovic outlining his proposals, Lord Frost tried to torpedo them by raising the issue of the European Court of Justice.
“That was a deliberate attempt, it seems to me, to undermine what Maros Sefcovic was about and we need less of that from the British government to be frank and the problem for Europe is that Europe is not sure and has no trust now as to what would settle the protocol issue.”
Mr Frost tweeted a link to The Irish Times report of Mr Martin’s comments on Saturday, with the comment: “I wouldn’t normally want to use Twitter to reply to @MichealMartinTD the Taoiseach, but, as he accuses me personally of wrecking the talks last year, I feel I must respond.
“The suggestion the UK has not set out a ‘landing zone’ is simply wrong. Our July 2021 Command Paper and the legal text that followed it were a very clear landing zone, explained in significant detail.
“That July paper was also very clear that the role of the Court of Justice had to be removed. So it is simply wrong to say that I raised it for the first time in October in my Lisbon speech or that the aim was to wreck the talks process.
“If the Protocol problem is to be resolved, Ireland & the EU need to engage with what we have actually said. I’ve always been clear a negotiated way forward would be best. But if HMG positions are ignored or misrepresented it is hardly surprising unilateral action is on the table.”
Speaking at the official opening of Cork ARC Cancer Support’s new home at Sarsfield House in Wilton, Mr Martin said that he had spoken with Mr Johnson earlier this week and made clear to him that any unilateral action by the UK government would be a mistake.
“I made it clear that any move unilaterally to undermine the protocol would have a destabilising impact on Northern Ireland and, in my view, what is important, the British government needs to work professionally with the European Union in terms of resolving any issues about the protocol.”
The British prime minister has said that the protocol is turning into a political problem and that it is not working in the context of Northern Ireland. He has demanded changes to it despite agreeing to it in 2019 and the British government has warned that it will act unilaterally to change the protocol if agreement cannot be reached with the EU.
Mr Martin said: “The United Kingdom government need to put the stability of the political situation in Northern Ireland first and foremost - these issues can be resolved - and I know unionism stands ready to resolve them as well.”
Mr Martin said that he believed the solution to the current stand-off over the DUP’s refusal to enter the executive unless the protocol issue is resolved, was to get the assembly up and running in parallel with discussions on the protocol.
“Discussions around the protocol should be parallel with the restoration of the executive and the restoration of the assembly because democracy means there is a duty on all parties to fulfil the mandate given to them by the people and that is to set up the assembly and to set up the executive,” Mr Martin said.
“Then the executive and the assembly can make a strong contribution to the resolution of the issues around the protocol, but I think the British government needs to think long and hard on its strategy and its approach because in my view, its unilateral approach is not helpful whatsoever.”
Earlier, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald has said she intended to tell Mr Johnson on Monday morning that his tactics in relation to the Brexit protocol are “shameful and disgraceful”.
Ms McDonald said the British government is conniving with the DUP to stymie the will of the electorate as expressed in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections where Sinn Féin emerged as the biggest party.
Speaking following a meeting of the Sinn Féin’s ard comhairle in Dublin, she called on the international community to “call out” the British government on its absence of good faith in relation to the protocol.
Ms McDonald accused Mr Johnson of using the North as a “pawn in a wider game played out with the European Union and this is clearly a shameful tactic and approach”.
"Lets be clear – the protocol is going nowhere. The protocol is a necessary outworking of Brexit which the Tory Party and the DUP campaigned for. We will not be collateral damage in the Brexit negotiations," she said.
She anticipated that both the US government and the EU will tell the British government “loud and clear” that their attempts to change the protocol will not be accepted.
Sinn Féin’s Assembly leader Michelle O’Neill said Sinn Féin turned up as it promised to do for the assembly.
“The people voted for politics to work, for people to work together. The DUP are punishing the public for their own Brexit mess. They are being facilitated in that by the Tories,” she added.
"When Boris Johnson comes to Belfast on Monday, we will make it very clear to him that they are punishing the public and that it is not acceptable.
“Boris Johnson has no mandate on the island of Ireland yet he is facilitating this DUP madness. I want the opportunity to be in the office of First Minister.”