EU did not grasp political reality of move on NI protocol, says McGuinness

Commissioner accepts move on vaccine exports was rushed through without ‘proper scrutiny’

Ireland's European commissioner Mairead McGuinness has said the EU's move to trigger article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol was a mistake and had caused justified anger and political fallout.

She said "the normal and proper scrutiny didn't happen" before the European Commission introduced a new regulation to control the export of vaccines from the EU.

“What was intended to be a very technical regulation to get information transparency on the flows of vaccines turned out to contain this very, very sensitive clause about Ireland,” she told RTÉ radio’s This Week.

“It was not saying at all that the commission would ban anything or do anything to put borders up. This was intended to gather market information.”


She said on the wider issue of how an issue as sensitive as Northern Ireland came into the equation "I'm afraid the political reality of the paragraph wasn't understood".

On Friday, Brussels announced plans to use article 16, which allows for special safeguard measures to be taken by either the UK or EU in exceptional circumstances, to prevent a "backdoor" on its plan to limit shipments of AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine to Britain.

Brussels subsequently reversed the move following condemnation from London, Dublin and Belfast.

Ms McGuinness there were issues the commission would address in the coming days. “This has not been good for the European Commission” but “we will learn lessons from it” to make sure it did not happen again.

She said European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen would “not at all” have to consider her position. Ms McGuiness said “she has been hugely courageous” because she had brought the EU member states together to pool their resources.

Ms McGuinness was appointed the EU Commissioner for Financial Stability by Ms von der Leyen, after replacing Phil Hogan as Ireland’s commissioner.

Explaining what happened Ms McGuinness said "this is not an excuse" but there was justified anger at the pharmaceutical AstraZeneca "in a very cavalier way" said they could not deliver on their commitments and would deliver 30 per cent of what the commission thought the EU was getting.

She said that at several meetings they were asked for details about what happened and why there was no information so a decision was taken to try and get information from the marketplace.

When it was put to her that some in the commission see Northern Ireland as nothing more than a backdoor into Britain she said “that’s absolutely wrong. What happened is there was a rush to get this regulation out and sometimes when things get rushed the detail is not fully taken on board.But it is fully taken on board now.”


Earlier, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said governments were “blindsided” by the European Commission’s move.

Mr Martin said he had been given no advance notice by the EU of the move on Friday. "The commission issued a public announcement on the issue and that's when we first became aware of it," he told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday.

The Taoiseach said he articulated the “very serious implications” the move would have to Ms von der Leyen and welcomed the reversal.

The commission revised its vaccine export control regulation on Saturday. The regulation compels pharmaceutical companies to report the quantity and destination of vaccine exports and hands member state governments the power to block them if the exports pose a threat to completion of EU orders.

It is understood the revised regulation includes a compromise that will see vaccines crossing between the Republic and Northern Ireland being recorded in Dublin but they will not be at risk of being blocked.

Mr Martin disagreed with the assessment of Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster that the EU displayed an "act of hostility" and said "an acrimonious row between AstraZeneca and the commission over the contractual obligations of the company in respect of supplying vaccines to European member states took centre stage here".

He said on Saturday he understood Ms Foster’s frustration and the move was a mistake but he insisted no lasting damage had been done.

On Sunday, the Taoiseach said there was an opportunity for governments to re-engage, to make sure the protocol operates smoothly.

He stressed it took four years to negotiate the protocol to facilitate access for Northern Ireland’s economy to the single market as well as to the UK market and to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

"We are only four weeks into the operation of the protocol, there are bound to be teething problems but I do acknowledge the need for engagement here on all sides, between the European Union, the United Kingdom and the Irish Government, and the Northern Ireland Executive."

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said the EU had set a “precedent... that in circumstances where their single market is in danger and there’s a potential threat, then the provisions of article 16 can be triggered”. He told the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme that the British government “now needs to look at what it can do to alleviate the problems between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that get rid of some of the insidious effects of this wretched protocol”.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the commission’s move was a “grave error of judgment”.

She also said it was absolutely irresponsible to say British prime minister Boris Johnson “should reciprocate and enter into a tit for tat triggering of article 16”.

She said it “should not be countenanced and those who are making that call need to give their heads a shake and reconsider their position”. – Additional reporting: PA

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times