Calls to scrap North protocol ‘unrealistic’, Coveney says

Arlene Foster calls for ‘tangible actions’ from Boris Johnson to protect integrity of UK

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney. File photograph: Cyril Byrne

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney. File photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

Calls by the North’s First Minister to scrap the Northern Ireland protocol are “unrealistic”, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.

Writing in Thursday’s Daily Telegraph, Arlene Foster said the protocol risked the North’s “political and economic links” with the rest of the UK and that British prime minister Boris Johnson must now back up his words with “tangible actions that protect the integrity of the whole of the United Kingdom”.

“The Northern Ireland Protocol has not worked, cannot work and in light of our proposals to the Government, needs to be replaced,” Ms Foster wrote.

The protocol is a mechanism agreed by the UK and EU as part of the Brexit withdrawal talks to ensure a free-flowing Irish Border.

Unionists are deeply unhappy with the new arrangements, which came into force on December 31st, believing the protocol has created a barrier between the North and the rest of the UK.

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme on Thursday, however, Mr Coveney said the protocol “is not going to be changed”.

“This is about its implementation and the flexibilities that are there for its implementation,” he said.

“We have to be truthful with people; the protocol is not going to be scrapped, so we need to find a way of ensuring that it works for everybody and the flexibilities that are there and baked into the protocol are used to the maximum extent possible to try to ensure that trade can happen in as seamless a way as possible.”

‘Pragmatic’ approach

This, he said, would involve a “pragmatic” approach and if necessary going further “in terms of some of the flexibilities that are there already, perhaps looking at extending them somewhat, but I think we need to be realistic – there’s not going to be dramatic change here”.

“Building this up into a drama around whether or not the protocol can be scrapped, with no alternative being suggested, is just not realistic,” Mr Coveney said.

“We want the protocol to function in a way that works for everyone, North and South, on the island of Ireland.” Mr Coveney said the protocol was a result of Brexit and followed two years of negotiation, adding that options were “narrowed significantly” in mitigating the impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland.

“The EU wanted to share a single market and customs union and that was turned down,” he said.

Mrs Foster’s comments come after crunch talks on the protocol between Northern Ireland’s leaders and the UK and EU.

Ian Paisley jnr, also of the DUP, echoed his party leader’s words, telling BBC’s Newsnight: “The first 34 days of this year have been absolute and total chaos for the citizens of Northern Ireland.

“This has been an unmitigated disaster. I can’t imagine that’s what they planned, but this is how it has worked out and therefore we’ve got to fix it and fix it fast.”

British cabinet minister Michael Gove and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic held a virtual meeting with Ms Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill on Wednesday evening.

Physical inspections on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain, which are required under the protocol, have been suspended amid threats and intimidation of staff.

Police have insisted there is no evidence that loyalist paramilitaries are involved in the sinister campaign, instead blaming disgruntled individuals and small groups. – Additional reporting PA