Coveney says Britain showing ‘no generosity’ in protocol row with EU

Jeffrey Donaldson calls on Boris Johnson to ‘restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK’

Britain is showing "no generosity at all" in a deepening stand-off with the European Union over the implementation of the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol agreed by both sides, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.

Responding to an opinion piece by Britain’s chief negotiator David Frost and London’s Northern secretary Brandon Lewis in The Irish Times, the Fine Gael deputy leader said it was a “very strange way to make friends and build partnership”.

Mr Frost and Mr Lewis said the current process to resolve difficulties surrounding the protocol was not working and called for “a new balance” in the way it was operated.

But Mr Coveney on Sunday said the commentary came after a week in which the EU had shown “a lot of generosity” in extending a grace period for the movement of chilled meats into the North from Britain as well as moving to ease concerns about medicines, guide dogs and livestock being allowed to move freely into the region.

“This is a week when the EU has moved, has shown generosity, responded to requests from the British government and leaders in Northern Ireland, and at the same time the British government shows no generosity at all in terms of even acknowledging that there were advances this week that could build trust and relationships,” he said.

Mr Frost and Mr Lewis accused the EU of taking a “theological approach” to implementing the protocol in full that is “frozen in time and does not deal with the reality that now exists.”

According to Mr Coveney, this was tantamount to “essentially blaming the EU” for not being able to implement the agreed arrangement.

“The truth here is that the only side that has shown flexibility in the context of the protocol, in regard to negotiations since the start of the year, has been the EU,” he told RTÉ’s This Week.

Both sides “have got to take responsibility and ownership”, he added.

“Many in the EU now interpret the UK response as essentially saying concessions don’t matter, what is required now is to dismantle elements of the protocol piece by piece,” said Mr Coveney.

“That is going to lead to huge problems.”

Developments from the EU this week, in recognition of the “divisions” being created by the protocol in the North, are seen in Brussels as “quite a significant move” and Britain “has barely acknowledged it, and has just asked for more.”

Mr Coveney said many in the North, along with the Irish Government, believe there is space for “conversation and compromise” over a joint approach between London and Brussels to food standards which would eradicate up to 80 per cent of checks on goods moving into the region from Britain under the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

But, again, the British side has “said no, we don’t want any form of alignment or sameness with the EU,” he added.

Every time Mr Frost or Mr Lewis says the protocol is unsustainable it “reinforces in the minds of people frustrated by the protocol that it needs to change”.

“What needs to happen is for the EU and UK to work in partnership,” he added.

Mr Coveney said there is an agreed implementation plan and Britain needs to move on “very practical things” such as giving a timeline on the construction of permanent inspection posts in the North for goods coming in from Britain.

The EU was also still being refused access to data on trade into the North, he added.

Writing in The Irish Times, Mr Frost and Mr Lewis said the ongoing impasse “is now urgent.”

“The UK and Ireland have a huge, and very direct, interest in finding solutions here,” they wrote.

“But we need constructive and ambitious discussions with the EU which deal with the actual reality.

“To simply say ‘the protocol must be implemented in full’ is to take a theological approach that is frozen in time and does not deal with the reality that now exists.

“If operating the protocol on the current basis is making the situation worse, then how can pressing for an even more rigorous assertion of it make sense?”

If solutions were not found, Britain would “have to consider all our options”, they said, a phrase that has in the past meant unilateral action in breach of the withdrawal agreement and international law.

Meanwhile, the new DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said Northern Ireland risks losing out on economic opportunities because of the Brexit border in the Irish Sea.

In his first television interview since taking up the post, he told Sky News the British prime minister Boris Johnson needed to restore Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, both economically and constitutionally.

“I’m prepared to give the prime minister an opportunity now to put right what was done wrong to Northern Ireland under the protocol,” he said.

The Northern Ireland protocol, agreed between the UK and EU, established a trade border in the Irish Sea to avoid any need for a border on the island of Ireland.

“I believe there are opportunities going forward but we can’t get to those opportunities because of these unnecessary barriers,” Mr Donaldson said.

“Much of our supply chain comes from Great Britain, whether you are a consumer buying goods in the supermarket or a business relying on component parts for your manufacturing process.”

“We need to fix that supply chain problem, we need to restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK, both the market and constitutionally.

“If we can do that then, yes, we will see the opportunities that will flow, providing we can find practical solutions on trade with the EU,” he added.

Mr Donaldson is the DUP’s third leader in three months, following the ousting of Arlene Foster in May and Edwin Poots, who survived just 21 days in the post.

The Lagan Valley MP is expected to quit Westminster to become First Minister in Northern Ireland.