Britain should reciprocate goodwill shown by EU on protocol – Martin

Northern Ireland protocol causing ‘big disaffection in the unionist community’, says British ambassador to Ireland

 Taoiseach Micheál Martin in Cork on Saturday for the launch of the Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme annual progress report. Photograph: Brian Lougheed

Taoiseach Micheál Martin in Cork on Saturday for the launch of the Social Inclusion and Community Activation Programme annual progress report. Photograph: Brian Lougheed

 

The British government should reciprocate the goodwill shown to it by the European Union over the past week and constructively engage in negotiations rather than issuing warnings over the Northern Ireland protocol, Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said.

Mr Martin said that the time for warnings by either side was over and political leadership was needed to ensure that negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom over the Northern Ireland protocol are satisfactorily resolved.

“There is a way for a sustainable solution here - it’s within the withdrawal agreement which the British government signed up to and there are mechanisms within that agreement to reach a resolution,” said Mr Martin.

“I think the British government should acknowledge the approach of the European Union this week in terms of the extension of the grace period (to allow chilled meats from Britain into Northern Ireland without regulatory alignment) and in terms of the facilitations round the medicines issue.”

Mr Martin was responding to comments made by the British ambassador, Paul Johnston on RTÉ Radio One on Saturday during a discussing on an Opinion piece in The Irish Times by Britain’s Brexit minister David Frost and Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis.

Mr Johnston said Britain’s position on the Northern Ireland protocol was “not sabre rattling” but reflected a real concern about the Unionist community fears about the protocol.

Mr Johnson warned that the protocol was “not going to last” unless both communities in Northern Ireland felt that it was working for both and respecting their interest which was not happening at the moment as there was “big disaffection with the protocol in the unionist community.”

Mr Martin said it was quite clear that the European Commission and European Union leaders generally were anxious to achieve a solution that would be acceptable to people in Northern Ireland and had displayed good will to the UK to achieve that goal.

“There is no question but the European Commission and the European Union leaders have demonstrated good will and a generosity of spirit towards the British government in the past week in their efforts to resolve this issue.

“It really is time for the British government to reciprocate that generosity of spirit that European Union leaders have shown and also the sense of flexibility that Europe has indicated to the United Kingdom it is willing to deploy in respect of the working out of issues pertaining to the protocol.”

Mr Martin said that he had no doubt having spoken to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and others that there was a genuine desire among EU leaders to achieve an agreement and make the Northern Ireland protocol work.

“The time for warning each other is over, it’s time for engagement, constructive engagement with a view to reaching a resolution…Maroš Šefcovic has been working with the UK side and David Frost in a very constructive way and the extension of the grace period last week was evidence of that.

Mr Martin said that the Irish government had worked hard in Europe “to sensitize” both the European Commission and the European Union to the challenges facing Northern Ireland and the entire island of Ireland faced in terms of working out the protocol to ensure it works.

“European leaders have made it clear to me and the agreement itself makes it clear that it wants to reduce and minimize disruption to the optimum degree as much as is possible but there is an agreement there, there is a mechanism to resolve the issue within the broad agreement

“And it really needs political will now to bring this forward and I have no doubt that if the United Kingdom government and the European Commission really engage, then this can be resolved,” said Mr Martin speaking at an event in Cork city this afternoon.

Earlier, the British ambassador to Ireland insisted Britain’s position on the Northern Ireland protocol is “not sabre rattling”.

He warned that the protocol was “not going to last” unless both communities in the North felt that it was working for them and respecting their interests.

“We see big disaffection with the protocol in the Unionist community in Northern Ireland and significant problems for business in Northern Ireland, and that’s in no-one’s interest, so we want to find sustainable solutions within the framework of the protocol that rebuilds cross-community support for it,” Mr Johnston said.

He said the arrangement had been a difficult compromise for both sides. He said “constructive and ambitious” discussions should be pursued between Britain and the EU with a view to finding a more “reasonable, sustainable” approach.

Mr Johnston said the way the protocol worked should have as little impact as possible on the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland, but people could not access some medicines, some foods and services, or bring their pets from part of the UK to another.

“So this is why we think we need to look very carefully as to how this is being implemented. And it wouldn’t be the first time in the history of the European Union that the implementation of an agreement has been updated.”

People in Northern Ireland have had to face significant changes in the last few months at a time of Covid and when the most recent Northern Executive was only one year old.

“I think it is perfectly reasonable that people in Northern Ireland feel in some cases rather bewildered by the pace of change and I think it’s important that we do, both the EU and the UK, everything we can to create as much stability and certainty and preserve as much familiarity for them as possible, and that’s what’s guiding our approach to the protocol.

“Unless you have a situation in which both communities feel that the protocol is working for them and is respecting them and their interests then it’s not going to last.”

Asked by presenter Philip Boucher-Hayes if the contents of the Irish Times opinion piece by Lord Frost and Mr Lewis could be interpreted as sabre rattling, Mr Johnston said that would be wrong.

The British prime minister Boris Johnson had said that “if necessary” he would be prepared to invoke Article 16, he said.

“I think our position is not sabre rattling I think it’s just being honest in that we need to find a better balance in the way the protocol is being operated,” Mr Johnston said.

He said the protocol was not an end in itself. The purpose of it was to reconcile the Brexit deal that the British people voted for and the necessity to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and preserve the integrity of the EU single market.

“It would be a very strange state of affairs if you said that this thing that’s been introduced needs to be operated in exactly the way that we foresaw in principle even if it turns out it’s not working very well in practice just because that’s what was negotiated in a room in Brussels or in a room in London six or eight or nine or 18 months ago.

“The test of the sustainability of this arrangement must be how it is seen to be operating on the ground practically and politically.”

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