‘It’s spin and not the truth’: Coveney dismisses UK claims EU may block goods entering Northern Ireland

Taoiseach says no-deal Brexit would be ‘ruinous’ to British economy

The Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney dismissed claims by the British prime minister Boris Johnson as "totally bogus", as the tensions between the EU and UK notched up this weekend.

Mr Coveney said the UK was damaging its international reputation as he hit out at Mr Johnson's "spin" in claiming Europe could impose a "blockade" between Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Minister also dismissed claims by Mr Johnson that the controversial legislation introduced by his government at Westminster last week, which will walk away from parts of the withdrawal treaty agreed with the EU last year, was needed to stop a “foreign power” from “breaking up the UK”.

Mr Johnson’s assertions were “absolutely not true”, Mr Coveney told the This Week programme on RTÉ Radio 1.


Earlier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier also disputed the British prime minister's statements.

In a tweet, Mr Barnier said the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland “is not a threat to the integrity of the UK. We agreed this delicate compromise with Boris Johnson and his government in order to protect peace & stability on island of Ireland. We could not have been clearer about the consequences of Brexit”.

Mr Barnier continued that “Sticking to facts is also essential”. He said that the EU is not refusing to list the UK as a “third country”, the source of Mr Johnson’s claim about a “blockade” of Northern Ireland.

“To be listed, we need to know in full what a country’s rules are, including for imports. The same objective process applies to all listed countries,” he said.

‘No guarantee’

Soon afterwards, however, the British chief negotiator David Frost responded on Twitter, saying that the EU knows well what the UK’s rules on food standards are because it is currently operating EU rules.

“Any changes in future would be notified to the WTO and EU in the usual way with plenty of lead time. The EU lists dozens of countries globally on precisely this basis, without any sort of commitment about the future,” he said.

Lord Frost also said it had been made clear to the UK in the negotiations “that there is no guarantee of listing us. I am afraid it has also been said to us explicitly in these talks that if we are not listed we will not be able to move food to Northern Ireland.”

“The EU’s position is that listing is needed for Great Britain only, not Northern Ireland. So if GB were not listed, it would be automatically illegal for NI to import food products from GB,” he said. “I hope the EU will yet think better of this.”

On the Northern Ireland protocol, Lord Frost agreed with Mr Barnier that the two sides had “negotiated a careful balance in order to preserve peace and the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.”

However, he said that the UK government needed “powers in reserve” – ie the power to set aside the withdrawal treaty – to ensure that the balance is maintained.

The Irish Government earlier dismissed claims the EU could block goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, and insisted on Sunday there will be no return of a hard Border on the island of Ireland.

As the EU dealt with another crisis in negotiations with the UK as it leaves the bloc, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said a no-deal Brexit would be “ruinous” to the British economy and extremely damaging for jobs.

Mr Coveney said there may be “limited checks” on goods coming from Great Britain into the region because there is an agreement to prevent the need for physical infrastructure on the Border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

The measures were envisaged to stop goods passing from England, Scotland or Wales into the Republic via Northern Ireland tariff-free if no wider agreement is struck between the EU and UK.

Mr Coveney said: “There is no blockade proposed.

“That is the kind of inflammatory language coming from Number 10 which is spin and not the truth.”

How to keep the Border open has bedevilled negotiations on withdrawal from the EU.

In an incendiary article for The Telegraph, Mr Johnson said Brussels was threatening to use an “extreme interpretation” of the Northern Ireland Protocol, contained in the withdrawal agreement, to impose “a full-scale trade border down the Irish Sea” that could stop the transport of food from Britain to Northern Ireland.

No hard Border

The British government’s new UK Internal Market Bill has immediately run into controversy over its impact on talks with the EU and on international treaties. It could rewrite parts of last year’s Brexit Withdrawal Agreement relating to the provisions around all-Ireland trade.

Speaking on RTÉ’s The Week in Politics, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said “absolutely not” when it was put to him that Ireland faced a hard Border in light of the controversy over Britain’s plan to introduce legislation to overturn sections of the withdrawal agreement. He said the EU would have a “very measured, firm and strategic” response to this.

“Politicians in Britain and Ireland and Europe have only one obligation– to protect the people we serve, to protect their livelihoods and their jobs.

Mr Martin said Mr Johnson “and politicians in Britain and Ireland and Europe have only one obligation– to protect the people we serve, to protect their livelihoods and their jobs.

“Playing politics with this is simply not an option in terms of the very severe implications for political decisions on people’s ordinary lives.”

Mr Martin said Mr Johnson is “creating assertions that are in no way connected with the reality as contained within the protocol or withdrawal agreement”.

And he rejected claims by Mr Johnson to his MPs that the EU is trying to break up the UK. Mr Martin said of Mr Johnson that “he knows well that’s not the case. The protocol was negotiated for over two years”.

Extraordinary behaviour

Mr Coveney earlier told the BBC's The Andrew Marr Show a post-Brexit trade deal was still possible.

He said: "The British Government is behaving in an extraordinary way and British people need to know that, because outside of Britain the reputation of the UK as a trusted negotiating partner is being damaged."

At present the UK is part of the European single market, with jointly agreed regulations and standards across the continent.

Post-Brexit, the UK Government wants to continue to have a joint market across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, known as an internal market.

That means regulations around matters like food standards and animal welfare being set in the UK instead of Brussels.

Northern Ireland had been due to remain part of the bloc for trade purposes unless a wider commerce deal was struck with the EU.

That means Northern Ireland must continue to follow the standards of Brussels to avoid tariffs on all-island trade and keep the free-flowing border in goods with the Republic of Ireland, its EU neighbour, open.

The Government has said the British government’s plans represents a “serious risk” to the peace process amid acrimony in the negotiations.

Mr Coveney said: “Both the British and Irish economies are going to be damaged significantly and that will be a significant failure of politics not anything else.”

He added: “It is possible to get agreement, it will probably be a basic pretty thin agreement.”

The European Commission has given the UK until the end of the month to drop legislation enabling ministers to override the provisions in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement relating to Northern Ireland.

Following a stormy meeting in London on Thursday, the commission warned the UK was putting trade talks at risk and said it would “not be shy” of taking legal action.

Mr Johnson’s official spokesman, however, reiterated the government’s position that the provisions in the UK Internal Market Bill remained “critical” to the preservation of the Northern Ireland peace process.

On Sunday, Mr Martin spoke to European Council president Charles Michel, who leads the EU’s heads of states. Mr Martin said the EU27 were united in calling for full implementation of the withdrawal agreement/Northern Ireland Protocol. “International law and agreements must be honoured.”

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin TD Matt Carthy said the publication of the UK legislation moved the prospect of a no-deal Brexit closer.

He said the people of the North should be allowed to “have their say on which union they want to be part of” whether it is part of the EU through a united Ireland or through the UK. Independent TD Verona Murphy said they should be looking at the UK approach as “not bluffing”, adding that the British approach was “Trumpism”. – additional reporting PA

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times