Taoiseach Micheál Martin has moved to play down comments by his predecessor Bertie Ahern that some loyalists don't understand the Northern Ireland protocol.
Mr Martin said that he hadn’t seen Mr Ahern’s full remarks, but pointed out that they were made at an academic conference, where “things get said”. Mr Martin added that he didn’t believe that anyone from the unionist or loyalist community could accuse the Irish Government of not listening to them.
Speaking remotely, Mr Ahern had told a Brexit conference in Dublin on Thursday that people in some loyalist areas of Northern Ireland do not understand the protocol or do not see it as a trade issue, but as "a road to the Dublin Government taking over again" .
"In east Belfast and in the ghettos – and in the areas where you are likely to get trouble – the people haven't got a clue about the protocol, not a clue," said Mr Ahern, who has since defended his use of the word "ghetto", saying he was using it to describe areas of deprivation.
But Mr Ahern's comments prompted a torrent of criticism from unionist leaders, with former DUP leader Arlene Foster tweeting that "he needs to reflect on his words and apologise. Calling areas in Belfast 'ghettos' is not a good look."
DUP MP for East Belfast Gavin Robinson was equally critical of Mr Ahern, saying that his comments where he associated “east Belfast with a ghetto” and suggested loyalists were not able to understand the protocol were “demeaning and degrading”.
DUP Upper Bann MLA Diane Dodds also tweeted about Mr Ahern, saying: "Coming from the Dublin elite the snide comments in this piece about loyalist communities are despicable," while Belfast Telegraph columnist Lindy McDowell said Mr Ahern "hadn't a clue about the lives of working-class loyalists".
The protocol is a part of the EU-UK Brexit withdrawal agreement that guarantees a special trading status for Northern Ireland and a post-Brexit trade border in the Irish Sea. In recent times it has become the source of political tensions in the North and between Britain and the EU.
Speaking in Cork at the weekend, Mr Martin played down Mr Ahern’s comments and emphasised the Taoiseach’s own willingness to engage with unionism and to listen to their concerns over the protocol and convey those concerns to the EU negotiating team under Maros Sefcovic.
“I’m engaging with them on a consistent and constant basis, with all the unionist leadership in terms of the protocol – you know, in fact I would have spoken to the EU Commission having heard the concerns of unionist leaders in respect to the operation of the protocol,” he said.
“To be fair to Maros Sefcovic, he went to Northern Ireland, he met with all the stakeholders, he responded with a very far-reaching package that many people didn’t think he would go that far [with], so I think people are listening and we are very focused now on getting a resolution.”
Mr Martin said there was recognition across the UK for the need to reach an agreement that reduces disruption to trade and that was the very clear message he took from a meeting last week of the British-Irish Council in Wales and discussions with British minister Michael Gove.
"The discussions I had over the last two days in Wales at the British-Irish Council and our engagement with our European colleagues is that the talks between Maros Sefcovic and [British negotiator] Lord Frost are going through a better phase now," he said.
"It was interesting to hear the first ministers of Wales and Scotland very strong on the view that the last thing we all collectively need now is more disruption in trade – they are really seeing the impact of Covid on supply chains in the UK and the impact of Brexit too in terms of Scotland and Wales.
"They were making the point to us that there were manpower issues, for example, in terms of skills availability in the workplace and so on, so the last thing they want is any disruption, further disruption between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
“What I’m saying is that is our view from my talks with leaders in Northern Ireland as well. Everyone collectively is of the view we need to resolve this negotiation and I think that’s the focus I have . . . it’s still challenging but there is a genuine desire across the board to get a negotiated resolution.”