Martin urges ‘real and professional’ engagement by British on NI protocol

Taoiseach to meet Michelle O’Neill ahead of Boris Johnson bid to restore power-sharing at Stormont

Sinn Féin’s Northern Irish leader Michelle O’Neill is to meet the Taoiseach on Monday morning ahead of visit to Belfast by British prime minister Boris Johnson to discuss issues surrounding the Northern Ireland protocol.

Mr Johnson is due to meet the leaders of the North's five main parties in an attempt to restore the power-sharing institutions at Stormont.

The prime minister is to affirm his commitment to the Belfast Agreement and assert that he is not seeking to scrap the protocol. But Downing Street made clear in advance that he would not drop a threat to unilaterally disapply parts of the post-Brexit arrangement Mr Johnson reached with the EU in 2019.

British foreign secretary Liz Truss is expected to announce legislation on Tuesday that will unilaterally override central elements of the arrangement, including those that govern customs checks, food safety and goods regulation.

The protocol, included in the UK's withdrawal agreement with the EU to avoid the need for a border on the island of Ireland, allows Northern Ireland to stay within the EU single market, but imposes checks on good coming in from Britain.

It has led to claims from unionists that a border has been established in the Irish Sea and that Northern Ireland's position in the United Kingdom has been diminished.

Mr Johnson is to tell the DUP that “action to fix the protocol” must result in the formation of an Executive and Assembly at Stormont.

The DUP last Friday refused to elect a speaker until there is “decisive action” from London regarding the post-Brexit arrangement, meaning the North’s political institutions cannot function. It was the first time the Assembly had met since the May 5th election which returned Sinn Féin as the largest party, entitling Ms O’Neill to the position of first minister.

She and the Taoiseach are to hold talks at Government Buildings in Dublin on Monday morning. Fianna Fáil said the meeting is part of a planned move by the Taoiseach to meet all Northern Irish party leaders this week, which he is to travel to the North to complete.

Speaking at the National Famine Day Commemoration in Strokestown, Co Roscommon earlier, Micheál  Martin said he remained committed to finding a resolution to the deadlock over the operation of the protocol. He appealed to the British government to engage "in a real and professional way" to resolve issues.

“I would say to the British prime minister as I did last week that there is a real and urgent obligation now to engage with the EU Commission in a real and professional way to resolve issues that have been raised,” he said.

"As I said on Saturday, the issue here isn't with unionism per se – more fundamentally it is with the British government in terms of what it wants. It has never clarified what the landing zone for it is, or in my opinion, hasn't diligently engaged with the European Commission in terms of resolving issues that were raised legitimately within Northern Ireland in terms of the operation of the protocol."

Earlier, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said arguments that the Belfast Agreement is incompatible with the Northern Ireland protocol are "disingenuous and dangerous".

In an article in the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Coveney wrote that, taken together, the two agreements “are a powerful expression of what negotiation and partnership can achieve”.

He said that “as [a] friend and neighbour, I am deeply concerned for the wellbeing of the partnership between our countries”.

In comments he later echoed during an interview on Sky News on Sunday, Mr Coveney said the protocol did not weaken the constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the UK, and that it had three times been granted democratic legitimacy: in the 2019 UK general election, the ratification of the protocol in parliament, and in this month’s Stormont elections.

“That is not to say that the protocol is working as smoothly or as easily as it could do,” he wrote, adding he is “absolutely convinced” there is a “landing zone for pragmatic and workable approaches” to concerns raised about its operations.

He said Brussels had proposed measures to reduce checks on goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland, but that "disappointingly, the full potential of these proposals has never been explored by the UK".

Mr Coveney told Sophy Ridge on Sunday on Sky News that unilateral action could undermine the peace process in Northern Ireland, but that there was a need to address unionist concerns about the arrangements underpinning trade.

“What I see at the moment is a British government making statements and briefing against the EU, and creating a lot of tension in my country, your closest neighbour, and also potentially being on the verge of making a decision that could fundamentally undermine the functioning of the institutions of the peace process in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“Let’s not forget, this is not only about unionism, of course it needs to be partly about unionism, but a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit and would vote against Brexit again in the morning if it was put to them.”