British diplomat justifies protocol move due to ‘changed times’

‘The world itself has changed’ since deal was signed, says ambassador in Ireland

The British ambassador to Ireland Paul Johnston has acknowledged current tensions between the Irish and British governments saying there were “honest and open disagreements”, but he insisted that both Dublin and London want to “end up in the same place”.

“Where we want to end up is in broad terms very much the same place – we want to see Good Friday Agreement in good health when it comes to its 25th anniversary, we want to see the executive up and running,” Mr Johnston told journalists at a briefing on Friday afternoon.

Although London has repeatedly said that it wants Northern Ireland’s institutions up and running as soon as possible following recent Assembly elections, Mr Johnston said that in reality it was likely that the protocol row would have to be resolved before that happens.

He said that since the protocol was agreed as part of the EU-UK treaty that governs the British exit from the EU, “The world itself has changed in the intervening period. We now face a cost of living crisis, we’ve had Covid, we’ve had a lot of factors which are relevant but which weren’t there at the time,” he said.

“I think although you hear from the Commission ‘pacta sunt servanda’ – agreements need to be respected – I think there’s also a case of ‘tempora mutantur’ – the times change and we change with them.

“And we do think that the times have changed and we think that this in principle refusal to reopen the [EU’s negotiating] mandate is a point we’re bumping up against.”

Mr Johnston was briefing journalists on the British Government’s position regarding the Northern Ireland protocol, which had resulted in the most significant breach in relations between Dublin and London in many years.

He said that it was likely that the protocol issue would need to be resolved before the Stormont Executive returned.

“There’s clearly a difference of view about how we get there, to put it mildly . . . There are differences that are expressed publicly and privately,” he said.

“There are honest and open disagreements.”

He said that the British and Irish governments had a responsibility to work together “but that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily going to agree about everything”.

“People who’ve dealt with it a lot longer than me say, ‘Look we’ve been through rocky periods before’”, Mr Johnston said, but he insisted that “the essential shared interest is permanent.”

He said that the British Government wanted a version of the protocol that was “more sustainable, has broader support and doesn’t make the protocol a wedge issue in Northern Ireland politics and enables us to go forward.”

He said that the UK hoped the grace periods—which mean that parts of the protocol are not yet applied – would continue to be applied by the EU during the negotiating process and while the UK goes through the legislative process to unilaterally change the protocol.