Pat Leahy: Pessimism grows in Dublin over protocol

Acute concern over British intentions and impact on political stability in North

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney arriving at Government Buildings, for a Cabinet meeting last week. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney arriving at Government Buildings, for a Cabinet meeting last week. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA

 

There is growing pessimism among senior Irish Government figures about the prospects for agreement between the British government and the EU on the Northern Ireland protocol, and acute concern over the implications of the continuing dispute for political stability in the North.

Public statements by Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney in recent days have provided a window on the current feelings in Dublin.

And while some officials and under-the-radar contacts continue, even at ministerial level this week – and Taoiseach Micheál Martin stressed the need for dialogue between the EU and UK on Wednesday – the truth is that relations between Dublin and London continue to trundle along at a nadir. Unsurprisingly, Ministers and officials are deeply worried about that.

For months it has been both an analytical problem and a diplomatic parlour game in Dublin, trying to figure out if Boris Johnson’s government actually wants a solution to the protocol problems, or is it just interested in stoking division with the EU for domestic political purposes.

Not just in Dublin, either; in his Lisbon speech on Tuesday, the EU’s Brexit minister and chief negotiator David Frost specifically denied that Downing Street saw any domestic political advantage in continuing Brexit disputes.

This is widely disbelieved in many EU circles. In Dublin, there are mixed views. One senior official reckons it’s a bit of both; part searching for a solution, part happy to continue a fractious process that offers the potential for “Boris bashes Eurocrats” headlines.

What concerns Dublin most is not the British motivation but the results of the continuing conflict over the protocol, and the potential for further political polarisation and destabilisation in the North.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie, highly thought of in Dublin, warned of the need for the EU and UK to open meaningful negotiations in order to find a solution. The possible consequences are clearly on his mind too.

“A brick will turn into a petrol bomb and a petrol bomb will turn into a coffin,” he warned.

Under pressure from the protocol disputes, he said, Stormont institutions could collapse; indeed DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has expressely threatened this move. “If Stormont collapses, there’ll be a power vacuum and a power vacuum can lead to violence,” Beattie said.

This realisation is shared in Dublin and it is what is driving the Government’s silent and barely concealed fury with Frost and Johnson.

One senior Government official involved in Northern Ireland affairs tells colleagues on an almost daily basis that the Conservative administration in Westminster are “vandals” when it comes to the Belfast Agreement. They will destroy it without a second thought, the official warns.

Tweets by Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings claiming that the prime minister signed up to the protocol as a deliberate act of deception have only heightened feelings in Dublin and around the EU.

“Frost has blown out of the water any idea that they are acting in good faith,” said another source. “The only question is how much damage they are prepared to do to Northern Ireland and to the Good Friday Agreement.”