NI protocol and Troubles issues to dominate summit talks between Taoiseach and Johnson

Hopes that face-to-face meeting could rebuild trust between two governments

Discussions on Troubles legacy issues and the Northern Ireland protocol are expected to dominate a summit meeting on Friday between Taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson.

Mr Martin will travel to Chequers, the prime minister's country residence, for a lunchtime meeting, Government Buildings confirmed on Thursday night.

The two leaders will discuss unionist and loyalist unrest over the protocol to the EU-UK withdrawal treaty, which has led to some barriers to trade between the North and the rest of the UK. They are also likely to discuss wider British-Irish issues and the coronavirus pandemic.

Officials in Dublin said the meeting had been arranged following the last phone call between Mr Johnson and the Taoiseach in recent weeks and was not scheduled as a result of the Ballymurphy verdicts or the controversial proposals by the British government to halt future prosecutions of British soldiers for crimes committed during the Troubles.


Alarm in Dublin

However, it is expected that the two men will have discussions on these issues, as well as agreed agenda items. Sources say further talks between officials on legacy issues could result from the meeting, though there is alarm in Dublin that the British government has unilaterally set aside the provisions of the Stormont House Agreement without consulting either the Irish Government or parties in the North. Officials said they hope that a face-to-face meeting could rebuild trust between the two governments after a period in which relations have become strained.

But Mr Martin is expected to rebuff any attempts by Mr Johnson to have negotiations on the substance of the protocol, as this is an EU-UK matter, rather than a bilateral one between the two states.

In a sign that the British side want to have discussions on the protocol, it is expected that Lord David Frost, the British cabinet minister responsible for relations with the EU, will attend the meeting.

Unionist tensions

Dublin acknowledges that it has an interest in dialling down loyalist and unionist tensions on the protocol, as they are increasingly threatening the Stormont institutions and the operation of the Belfast Agreement.

Tensions with unionism over the protocol were partly responsible for internal criticism in the DUP of party leader and Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster.

Ms Foster announced her resignation following the challenge, resulting in a leadership contest in the DUP which culminates on Friday.

Both candidates, Edwin Poots and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, have said they will not operate the protocol, though it remains part of British law.

Downing Street declined to give any details of Friday’s meeting, which follows a warning by Lord Frost that the Northern Ireland protocol is not sustainable for long the way it is currently operated.

The EU-UK Partnership Council, which governs the Brexit agreement, is expected to meet next month alongside the joint committee for the protocol but neither side expects all difficulties related to the protocol to be resolved by then.

Lord Frost has rejected an EU proposal for a temporary veterinary agreement that could eliminate the need for many checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Mr Johnson is expected to seek the Taoiseach’s support in persuading the EU to accept a system of equivalent standards rather than full alignment. However, Dublin is reluctant to become involved in any EU-UK discussions.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told the House of Commons on Thursday that the British government would consult further with the Irish Government and others before drafting legislation on the legacy of the Troubles. London this week drew back from a proposal to grant a blanket amnesty to former soldiers and paramilitaries for alleged crimes committed during the Troubles.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times