Loyalists in east Belfast and "ghettos" in Northern Ireland "don't have a clue" about the post-Brexit protocol, and see it as a "trick by the South" to create a united Ireland, a former taoiseach has said.
Bertie Ahern told a virtual Brexit conference in Dublin that solving the issue of political identity in the dispute over the protocol was "far more difficult" than the trade issues.
He said that people in loyalist areas of Northern Ireland do not understand the protocol or see it as a trade issue, but 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 – the people haven’t got a clue about the protocol, not a clue.”
Loyalists viewed the post-Brexit arrangements 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”.
DUP MP for East Belfast Gavin Robinson last night criticised Mr Ahern for associating east Belfast with a ghetto and said that the suggestion that Loyalists were not able to understand the protocol was “demeaning and degrading.” He called on the former taoiseach to apologise.
Mr Ahern's comments came ahead of a meeting on Friday between European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic and Britain's Brexit minister David Frost to assess progress in talks towards an agreement on simplifying trade rules on goods moving to Northern Ireland from Britain.
The EU and UK are trying to resolve a row over the protocol, the arrangements agreed in 2019 that were designed to prevent Brexit creating a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Unionists argue that the protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, while Boris Johnson’s government has threatened to invoke article 16 and unilaterally suspend parts of the agreement.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said it was "deeply disappointing" that the UK government was not showing any "reciprocal willingness to compromise" after the EU had offered "a significant compromise" to reduce checks with new proposals last month.
Lord Frost on Thursday rejected reports that he was softening his approach to the talks, telling the House of Lords that he could trigger article 16 at any time.
He also dismissed speculation that he would invoke the article in the most limited way to extend current grace periods on rules.