Protocol negotiations need to be finished by end of February, says Coveney

Minister wants deal done before Assembly elections but says UK has made ‘no concessions all year’

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has warned that if post-Brexit talks do not conclude by February, the election in Northern Ireland will become a referendum on the protocol. Photograph: Tom Honan

Negotiations between Britain and Brussels over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland should not drag on past February and it is time for the UK to make concessions, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.

"We all know that we need to bring this discussion and negotiation to an end," he told the Financial Times in an interview, highlighting the record of the UK's new chief Brexit negotiator, foreign secretary Liz Truss, in concluding trade deals.

"We have elections in Northern Ireland in May. Those elections will begin in earnest really from the end of February. So this can't drift on for months," Mr Coveney said.

Ms Truss, who took over the Brexit portfolio this month after the surprise resignation of David Frost, is expected to visit Northern Ireland early next month but has signalled no change in the UK's stance yet.


The Northern Ireland protocol, which has allowed Northern Ireland to remain within the EU’s single market for goods, thus avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, is being renegotiated.

Mr Coveney said the UK had made “no concessions all year; the EU has made multiple concessions and continues to do so”.

“Let’s not pretend that both sides have compromised here . . . Now both sides need to compromise a little bit more.”

The concessions by Brussels would halve customs checks and reduce checks on British products destined for Northern Ireland by 80 per cent, according to Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s Brexit negotiator. The EU has also changed legislation to ensure that Northern Ireland can still continue to receive medicines from Britain.

However, the British government is pressing for further concessions and Jeffrey Donaldson has threatened to pull his Democratic Unionist Party out of the Northern Ireland Executive in January unless the Irish Sea customs border is scrapped. He argues that the protocol is undermining Northern Ireland's status as part of the UK. The Brexit talks have shuttled between London and Brussels for weeks without progress.

If they do not conclude by February, “the election in Northern Ireland will become a referendum on the protocol”, Mr Coveney said. “I think the month of January and February really is the timeline that we’re working in, to try to bring these discussions to a close. And there’s no reason why that shouldn’t happen. Because there’s nothing new on the table here.”

Ms Truss has repeated Britain’s readiness to suspend parts of the protocol under article 16 – a move that Mr Coveney says would “backfire” and call into question the UK’s entire post-Brexit trade deal with the EU. On one sticking point, Ms Truss has already repeated the latest UK position that it does not want the European Court of Justice to be the “final arbiter of disputes”.

That form of words would keep it at arm’s length from the protocol while still allowing it to adjudicate on issues of EU law. The EU insists that because Northern Ireland is in the single market for goods the UK must accept ultimate oversight by the ECJ. “I don’t see how the EU can agree to removing a role for the ECJ in interpreting EU rules and regulations,” Mr Coveney said.

Regarding links with London, he said: “I see my role as a candid friend . . . I’m not going to tell the British government what they want to hear,” he said. “I think my role has got to be to explore realistic potential solutions.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021