Martin says ‘window of opportunity’ exists for agreement on Northern Ireland protocol

Sources in Brussels and Dublin say mood in EU is deteriorating despite granting of further grace period on import of chilled meats

Micheál Martin: “It really is time to engage and make sure we get a resolution.” Photograph: Getty Images

Micheál Martin: “It really is time to engage and make sure we get a resolution.” Photograph: Getty Images

 

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said a “window of opportunity” now exists to reach agreement on the Northern Ireland protocol, and has called on the British government to engage with the EU through the processes laid down in the Withdrawal Agreement.

“There’s a window of opportunity now given the extension that has been granted to knuckle down and get these issues sorted,” he said at Government Buildings on Monday.

“Where there’s a will there’s a way...It really is time to engage and make sure we get a resolution,” he said.

However, senior sources in Brussels and Dublin said the mood in the EU was deteriorating despite the granting of a further grace period on the import of British chilled meats to the North – a symbol of the regulation of imports to Northern Ireland agreed as part of the protocol.

The regulations have infuriated many unionists and have led the British government to argue that it did not expect the protocol to be implemented so rigidly. New DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has said it is the most important issue facing the North.

Dublin wants to see a compromise on the implementation of the protocol that satisfies the EU’s desire to protect its internal market but does not raise the constitutional sensibilities of unionists.

Senior officials insist that Dublin is not becoming an interlocutor between the EU and the UK – there is significant British pressure on the Irish Government to help move the EU position.

Mr Martin has stuck rigidly to the Government’s position that the negotiations are a matter for the EU and the UK to resolve under the Withdrawal Agreement, but has been trying to work the back channels to ease the way towards a deal. He lobbied EU leaders to extend the grace period at a recent summit despite hardening attitudes in Brussels.

On Monday he said the UK government should “acknowledge and respond and reciprocate the generosity of spirit” that the EU had displayed recently in extending the grace period.

He again pointed the way to an agreement as being through food and animal standards, though months of negotiations have not brought this any closer.

Senior sources said there was a growing feeling on the EU side that the UK was “banking” concessions offered by the EU rather than engaging more constructively.

“There is only so much reasonableness that can be injected if one side feels it’s doing all the moving,” said one source.

Options

Several sources also pointed to an article by the British chief EU negotiator Lord David Frost and the Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis in The Irish Times on Saturday which set out the British view that the protocol is being applied too strictly and warned that the British government would “consider all our options” if agreement cannot be reached. It has, said one Brussels source, “done nothing to help the mood”.

It is understood no talks between Lord Frost and the EU commissioner Maros Sefcovic are planned, but that technical talks between officials will continue.

Mr Martin was speaking with Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris at the launch of a €40 million fund for cross-Border research projects, provided by the €500 million Shared Island initiative.

Mr Martin said he had not discussed the fund directly with the new DUP leader Mr Donaldson, but said that Mr Donaldson had “long been a believer in co-operation between the Republic and the North, and I think this will be a broadly welcomed progressive initiative”.

He said he had not had a meeting with Mr Donaldson about the Northern Ireland Protocol yet “but we will in the fullness of time”.