Lack of UK compromise on NI Brexit deal ‘deeply disappointing’ – Coveney

Loyalists see protocol as ‘a trick by the South’ to take over the North, says Ahern

The UK's unwillingness to compromise in the row with the EU over the Northern Ireland Brexit deal has been "deeply disappointing", Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.

Mr Coveney told a university conference on Brexit in Dublin that the European Commission's proposed changes to the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol intended to resolve the dispute between the EU and the UK was a "significant compromise for the EU".

“The lack of any evident reciprocal willingness to compromise from our UK partners to date has been deeply disappointing,” he told the DCU Brexit Institute conference.

Mr Coveney said the protocol was agreed by the UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, and Brexit minister David Frost, approved by the British government and ratified by the UK parliament.

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“They have a duty to deliver on their commitments,” he said.

The EU and UK are engaged in negotiations to try to break the impasse over the protocol, the special arrangements agreed in 2019 to prevent Brexit creating a hard border on the island of Ireland and having a trade border between Northern Ireland and Britain.

Brussels has welcomed a change in tone from London over the past week with the UK stepping back from the threat to trigger article 16 and unilaterally suspending parts of the protocol, but David Frost has said that "significant gaps" remained between the two sides.

Mr Coveney said recent polls had shown that most people in Northern Ireland wanted the protocol “to work” and across communities “people support a pragmatic and sensible approach”.

“It is very important we do not lose sight of the goal here: ensuring an outcome that is best for the people of Northern Ireland,” he said.

Former taoiseach Bertie Ahern told the conference that people in Loyalist areas did not understand the protocol but saw it "as a road to the Dublin government taking over again".

"In east Belfast and in the ghettos and in the areas where you are likely to get trouble, people haven't got a clue about the protocol," he said.

Trade issues

After attending meetings in Northern Ireland, he said that trying to solve the issue of political identity around the protocol was “far more difficult” than solving the trade issues.

“It is seen as a trick by the South to move the border from across the island and to put it down the Irish Sea as a trap for Dublin,” he said.

In response to Mr Ahern’s comments, DUP MP for East Belfast Gavin Robinson criticised him for associating east Belfast with a ghetto and said the suggestion that Loyalists were not able to understand the protocol was “demeaning and degrading.” He called on the former taoiseach to apologise.

Mr Robinson said that people in his constituency "who can't get their Amazon parcels from another part of the United Kingdom well understand the impact of the protocol".

“Rather than belittling those who oppose the protocol, Bertie Ahern should seek to understand why not a single elected unionist in Northern Ireland supports the protocol,” he said in remarks reported by the BBC.

Mr Ahern’s comments also drew scorn from David Campbell of the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) who said despite their working relationship in the past, the remarks denigrated the unionist community.

“He needs to reflect on what he has said and withdraw them,” Mr Campbell said in a statement. “I doubt if there is a single unionist in Northern Ireland who does not know and understand exactly what the Northern Ireland protocol means.

“It was the result of a sustained campaign of misrepresentation by Irish Ministers who seized on an opportunity to reignite nationalism on this island and to weaken the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

Unification

In a discussion about any future referendum on Irish unification, Mr Ahern said having a referendum before working out the detail of how unification would happen was “insanity”.

“A referendum before the detail is worked out would mean that it would be rejected both North and South. There is no doubt about that. People are far too politically wise,” he said.

“They are used to referendums, particularly in the South. They will want to see the detail.”

Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen's University Belfast, told the conference her research on Brexit had found that the level of "misinformation and misunderstanding" around the protocol and what article 16 meant was "a really serious concern".

“When you begin to ask people about it, some of the people who are concerned about it will be worried about being hauled up before a foreign court,” she said.

“This will translate into how they protest or cast their vote.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times