Taoiseach tells Dáil Northern Ireland protocol ‘needs some changes’

Johnson says he is prepared to invoke Article 16 to ensure no barrier down the Irish Sea

British prime minister Boris Johnson has said he is prepared to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Irish protocol to ensure there is no barrier down the Irish Sea. Video: UK Parliament TV

The Northern Ireland protocol "does need some changes", Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said.

Speaking the Dáil, Mr Martin said the Government, Northern Ireland Executive, European Commission and British government could work together to resolve the impasse.

Mr Martin said there had been engagement with the Commission to ensure no further attempts, like what happened last weekend to trigger Article 16 of the protocol over the AstraZeneca vaccine controversy, would happen again.

His comments came hours after British prime minister Boris Johnson told the House of Commons he was prepared to invoke Article 16 to ensure there is no barrier down the Irish Sea.


During a debate in the Dáil, Mr Martin told Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald that all side were considering whether “sensible, common-sense modifications could be made in relation to the protocol”.

Ms McDonald said “cool, calm leadership” and a united approach was required to deal with a section of “political unionism” and its attempts to remove the protocol.

The unity shown during the Brexit negotiations was very "successful and necessary in securing the protections for Ireland in the face of Brexit" and the same strategy was necessary now.

She said the “misguided” approach by the European Commission in attempting to trigger the protocol “has been seized on by a section of political unionism” who championed Brexit “despite repeated warnings that Brexit would be bad and damaging for Ireland as a whole”.

She called on Mr Martin confirm the protocol and its protections are “permanent, are firm and will not be unravelled and are not up for grabs”.

No barrier

Mr Martin said the protocol required some changes and Dublin, Belfast, London and Brussels would have to work together to deal with the current controversy. He said the mistake the commission made in trying to use the protocol to deal with the vaccine controversy was reversed quickly by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Earlier, Mr Johnson told the House of Commons he will “do everything we need to do whether legislatively or indeed by invoking Article 16 of the Protocol to ensure that there is no barrier down the Irish Sea”.

DUP MP Ian Paisley, who represents North Antrim, claimed people in Northern Ireland were being made to “feel like foreigners in our own country” by post-Brexit rules.

Addressing Mr Johnson, he said: “Prime minister, you say that your commitment to Northern Ireland is unshakeable. But I speak for all of my constituents today when I tell you that the protocol has betrayed us and has made us feel like foreigners in our country.

“Tea and sympathy will not cut the mustard. So what is the prime minister actually going to do when you realise that the EU will do nothing to help Northern Ireland?

“Will the prime minister use all of the instruments at his disposal, will he use if necessary his parliamentary majority, will he legislate if necessary to remove the impediments to trade in Northern Ireland and will he be a man of his word and allow businessmen in my constituency to bin the unnecessary documentation that he told us we could bin? Prime minister, be the unionist we need you to be.”


Responding, Mr Johnson said: “I utterly share the frustration of the honourable gentleman about the way the EU, in particular, the EU Commission, temporarily seemed to call to use the protocol in such a way as to impose a border contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, and contrary to the letter of the Good Friday Agreement, and we will do everything we need to do whether legislatively or indeed by invoking Article 16 of the Protocol to ensure that there is no barrier down the Irish Sea.

“The honourable gentleman’s business constituents, some of whom I know very well and admire very much, can continue to do business unfettered between Northern Ireland and the rest of this country.”

Earlier, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney insisted the removal of the Northern Ireland protocol is "not going to happen".

Mr Coveney said: “Those who are calling for doing away with the protocol entirely I think are completely unrealistic. That is not going to happen. Ireland, the UK and the EU have a legal obligation in an international treaty to implement the protocol.”

“The protocol isn’t primarily the problem here, the problem is caused by Brexit and the kind of Brexit that the British government pursued and insisted on, because there were alternatives [to the protocol] that would have been much easier to implement.”

His comments came before DUP leader Arlene Foster told Mr Johnson, in a telephone call this morning, why she believes the protocol should be scrapped.

Mr Johnson told Mrs Foster "urgent action" from the European Union was needed to resolve issues with the Northern Ireland protocol, a Downing Street spokesman.

Referring to the phonecall between Mr Johnson and Mrs Foster, the spokesman said: “They spoke about the EU’s actions from Friday and their shared concern that the processes set out in the Protocol were ignored.

"The Prime Minister restated his commitment to Northern Ireland as an integral part of our Union and underlined that we would do everything we could to ensure trade continues to flow effectively right across our United Kingdom. "

British cabinet office minister Michael Gove and European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic will hold a virtual meeting with Mrs Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill later today.

The protocol is a mechanism agreed by the UK and EU as part of the Brexit withdrawal talks to retain a free-flowing Border between the North and the Republic.

It achieves that by moving regulatory and customs processes to the Irish Sea, focusing on the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland. Inspections and added bureaucracy are required because, under the protocol, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market for goods and also applies EU customs rules at its ports.

Some unionists and loyalists are deeply unhappy with the new arrangements, which came into force on December 31st, believing the protocol has created a barrier between the region and the rest of the UK, undermining the constitutional integrity of the union.

On Tuesday, the DUP announced a series of political moves aimed at undermining the protocol.

Its strategy includes opposing any protocol-related legislation at the Stormont Assembly and refusing to participate in any exchanges with the Irish Government related to the operation of the protocol. – Additional reporting PA

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times