There are growing fears in Dublin and Brussels that the British government will shortly invoke article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, a move that officials say would plunge EU-UK relations, and British-Irish ties, into deep crisis.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin issued an unprecedentedly blunt warning to the British government in the Dáil on Wednesday, describing any move to trigger article 16 as “irresponsible . . . unwise . . . reckless”, and saying that it would have “far-reaching implications” for the relationship between Dublin and London.
Several senior sources with knowledge of discussions in Dublin and Brussels on the issue say they now expect the British government to trigger article 16 either after the Cop26 talks have concluded or even before.
There have been public and private indications from London in recent weeks that it is set on such a course, sources say. Earlier this week reports in London said the British government sought external legal advice on article 16 and the protocol to support its plans. The news was interpreted in Dublin as a sign that the triggering of article 16 is imminent, with the Johnson administration seeking a legal justification for the move.
Article 16 serves as an emergency brake in the protocol, allowing either side to suspend its operations because of serious social or economic disruption. However, it does not get rid of the protocol, but rather triggers new negotiations and consultations between the sides.
However, Irish officials fear that the triggering of article 16 could rupture relations between the two sides and lead to retaliatory action from the EU, ultimately triggering suspension of the free trade agreement and the introduction of tariffs between the EU and UK.
They also fear that this would lead to EU pressure on Ireland to protect the EU single market, raising the prospect of checks on North-South trade.
These fears led Mr Martin to issue his sharpest and most public warning on article 16 yet in the Dáil on Wednesday.
"We have acted in good faith, I think the European Commission has acted in good faith, and a good faith response is required from the United Kingdom government," he said.
“In my view it would be irresponsible, it would be unwise, and it would be reckless to invoke article 16 as a response to the proposals from the European Commission.
"And I think if such an act was to be taken by the British government it would have far-reaching implications for the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. I think it would also have implications for the relationship between the United Kingdom government and the Irish Government.
“Because such an action would not be in accordance with the spirit of partnership that has informed the peace process since the get-go and the creation of the entire architecture that underpins the Good Friday Agreement. That is my very strong view,” Mr Martin said.