Northern Ireland faces ‘turbulent few months’ over Brexit, says Varadkar

Tánaiste warns against any unilateral action that would damage Irish Sea trade deal

Northern Ireland faces a "turbulent few months" as the countdown to Assembly elections has begun and with "unease" within unionism about the Brexit protocol, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said.

Speaking at the fifth dialogue of the Government's Shared Island initiative, the Fine Gael leader said there was "political will in Dublin" to resolve outstanding issues around the protocol.

The Government would “allow space for constructive technical engagement” to continue between the British government and the European Commission on resolving these matters.

“But I have to emphasise that the only sustainable solutions are joint solutions, not unilateral action that would bring us nowhere,” Mr Varadkar said.

The protocol was agreed as part of the December 2020 trade deal covering the UK’s exit from the EU, creating a trade border in the Irish Sea to avoid checks on the Irish land border.

The new Democratic Unionist Party leader Edwin Poots has called for the measure to be scrapped and has urged the UK government to invoke Article 16 of the protocol to suspend it.

Mr Poots has accused the EU of causing “demonstrable harm” to the peace process and said he is concerned about violence this summer due to anger over the protocol.

Addressing the online Shared Island conference from Dublin Castle, Mr Varadkar said the Government would try to build political relationship with Mr Poots and the new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party Doug Beattie as Northern Ireland heads towards Assembly elections in May 2022.

“With the countdown elections effectively having begun, I think we are in for a turbulent few months,” he said.

Mr Varadkar rejected a view expressed from the Protestant-unionist-loyalist community in Northern Ireland that its relationship with the Irish Government was "at an all-time low."

He acknowledged that to “reboot” political relationships there would be a need for an agreement on the protocol to “make that work better.”

In thinly veiled remarks about the DUP, he stressed that the north-south relationship should not be characterised as a relationship between “one government and one party.”

Middle ground

He described Northern Ireland as a “territory of minorities now” that is “more complicated to manage and work with”. He said there is an “exciting” middle ground of people identifying as British and Irish or Northern Irish - rather than Irish or British - and that this group was growing.

“There are any number of parties, none of which represents much more than a fifth or a quarter of the population, so I think we need not make the mistake that any one party or any one community is Northern Ireland,” said Mr Varadkar.

The Tánaiste accepted that there were “a lot of entrenched positions” around the protocol but that he doesn’t see any alternative solution to it.

He warned that a breakdown in agreement on the protocol could also result in a breakdown in the wider free trade agreement between the EU and the UK. “That would leave Britain in a very difficult position,” he said.

Mr Varadkar said the Northern Ireland protocol was agreed to manage the challenges of a hard Brexit that required checks and controls between the EU and UK to take place “somewhere.”

“If they are not going to be at the ports and airports no matter how light and unobtrusive, then they have to be along nine counties and that is not something that the majority of people I believe in Northern Ireland or the Republic want,” he said.

If that is accepted, then checks at Northern Ireland’s ports and airports must work better, he added.