David Frost undermined effort to resolve NI protocol issues, Taoiseach believes

Martin says protocol issues could be solved if there is ‘political will’ after North elections

Issues in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol could be solved after May elections in the North if there is "political will", Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said.

Speaking on Tuesday evening at a meeting of the Queen's University Belfast Chief Executives' Club that discussed the topic of "building a shared island", Mr Martin also said previous "genuine" attempts by the EU to make progress on outstanding issues in relation to the protocol were undermined by former UK Brexit minister David Frost.

The event on Tuesday evening was the networking group’s first Dublin meeting.

The Northern Ireland protocol is a part of the EU-UK Brexit withdrawal agreement that avoids a hard Border in Ireland post-Brexit by placing a trade border in the Irish Sea.

Speaking about negotiations last year between European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic and Mr Frost, which were aimed at resolving issues in relation to the protocol, Mr Martin said Mr Sefcovic "made a very genuine effort and came forward with proposals. I felt Lord Frost at the time probably unfortunately came in on the eve of that to try to, in my view, negatively undermine what was a genuine effort to move forward".

Mr Frost’s actions “narrowed the scope of unionist leaders” to respond in a more generous way to the EU effort, Mr Martin said.

"I think that was a missed opportunity. If further opportunities arise like that we can't miss them. I do believe Europe is sensitive to the concerns of the unionist community; we are too. If there is a political will I think we can solve this. I think it will be after the election.

"I will also say that given the current geopolitical issues at stake, the fact that the UK government is a key player in responding to the Russian aggression and Russia's barbaric war on Ukraine, that is appreciated across Europe, particularly by the eastern European countries. That context could be helpful in terms of bringing around a resolution to this because what it brings home, something I have been saying long in advance of this war, is democracy around the world is in retreat, authoritarianism is on the increase."

For this reason, he said, countries needed to “work constructively together” rather than focus on “phony wars about matters that can be resolved” because “there are bigger issues at stake for us all”.

Unionist opposition

Unionist politicians are opposed to the Northern Ireland protocol because they argue it has caused economic difficulties in the North and undermines its constitutional position within the UK. The protocol has moved regulatory and customs checks for certain goods arriving in the North from Britain to the Irish Sea, with Northern Ireland remaining in the EU single market for goods. The region also applies the EU customs code at its ports.

Unionists and loyalists claim the arrangements have undermined the sovereignty of the UK and have demanded the UK triggers the protocol’s article 16 mechanism to suspend its trading provisions.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis last month played down the prospect of triggering article 16 and acknowledged Britain was legally obliged to carry out checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.

The Taoiseach said Brexit had complicated the relationship between the State and the UK and the current dynamic was “very much through the prism of the protocol”.

He said the State and the UK needed to build a post-Brexit relationship which would involve replacing meetings which previously would have happened naturally in the EU.

Mr Martin also gave an update at the meeting about his Shared Island unit and said he would like its legacy to be “better relationships and a better understanding between people from different backgrounds”.

He said that “much has been achieved over the past 24 years through the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement, consolidating peace and normalising and developing political, economic and societal relationships.

“But it is clear too that we have a way to go to achieve the goal of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust that’s at the core of the Good Friday Agreement.

“Too often, the politics of the peace process operates as a contest of identities when it should be a pursuit of common interests.”

Mr Martin also said the National Economic and Social Council would give a significant report to Government next week about what opportunities existed to enhance relationships across the island.

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

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