Northern Ireland’s access to single market may be ‘jeopardised’, says Taoiseach

Dublin and Brussels concerned about a possible British move to trigger Article 16

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has warned that Northern Ireland's access to the single market could be "jeopardised" if Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol is triggered.

He was speaking in the Dáil on Wednesday afternoon amid fears in Dublin and Brussels of an imminent British move to suspend parts of the agreement.

However, Mr Martin cautioned against an assumption that the British government would move to invoke the article.

Addressing a meeting of the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party on Wednesday evening, Mr Martin said the situation was “volatile” but suggested the British side could be “dialling down” its warnings.

He said the EU was “in solution mode” and has made a “strong response” and that talks are expected to take another two to three weeks.

Mr Martin told the Dáil “I think that’s important that we don’t talk about the self-fulfilling prophecy... My views are very strong and I don’t think there’s a need to trigger Article 16. I believe it would be wrong to do so.”

The Taoiseach said access to the single market was important to people and businesses in the North but he warned that any triggering of Article 16 “would ultimately jeopardise in the short-term that access”.

He told TDs during Taoiseach’s questions that “what’s important now is that we double down on dialogue and engagement. And that’s what is happening.”

Mr Martin reiterated his view last week that it would be “reckless and irresponsible” for the British government to trigger Article 16.

He said European Commissioner Marius Sefcovic had come forward with a package of proposals that were quite far reaching and a “very comprehensive seat of measures” which formed the basis for further set of negotiations with the UK government.

But it was “very regrettable that in advance of the publication of the measures Lord Frost announced the issue around the ECJ (European Court of Justice)”.

“We formed a view that it was maybe an effort to almost torpedo the Sefcovic package before it was published. But I don’t think it had that impact in any event”.

The package was “strong and substantive”, dealing with all the legitimate issues that people raised.

Separately, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has warned British prime minister Boris Johnson,the UK will not end up with a better deal if it triggers article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol.

“The message I’d send to Boris Johnson is that we have an agreement in relation to Northern Ireland, we have an agreement in relation to trade with the European Union – don’t jeopardise it,” Mr Varadkar said in Dublin on Wednesday morning.

“You were part of negotiating it, you own it, it was hard won, it’s a mistake to think that by escalating tensions or by trying to withdraw from any part of it, that you’ll end up with a better deal: you won’t.”

‘Retaliation’

Mr Varadkar's comments come amid growing tension between the UK and European Union over London's stated intention to trigger the break clause in the protocol unless the EU concedes further on key issues. He said the EU could retaliate against the UK, potentially endangering the entire trade deal and revising the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.

“We have a protocol in place that is largely working, has prevented a hard border between north and south, and we have a trade agreement in place with Britain which allows us to trade with Britain without tariffs and that’s really important to Irish business,” he said at an event at the Guinness Enterprise Centre.

“And if the British government decides to trigger article 16, while that doesn’t mean withdrawing from the protocol, it does potentially retaliatory action from the European Union, which could mean suspending parts of the trade agreement. We’d have to give a year’s notice to do that, but that then does create uncertainty for business.”

Such a move would change the “certainty” that businesses in both jurisdictions had enjoyed, Mr Varadkar said. “And I think that would be a big mistake.

“The uncertainty that was created by Brexit went on for years, I think it would be a big mistake for the British government to reopen that uncertainty. I’d hate us to be talking again about a no-deal Brexit or a cliff edge or any of those terms that we’d forgotten or almost stopped using.”

“Any attempt to trigger article 16 would be bad news for businesses in Northern Ireland, here in Ireland and indeed in Britain,” he said.

‘Stay calm’

Earlier, Britain’s Brexit minister Lord Frost has said Brussels should “stay calm and keep things in proportion”.

He claimed in the House of Lords on Wednesday afternoon that triggering article 16 — which would effectively suspend elements of the arrangements — would be the UK’s only option if the dispute was not resolved.

Lord Frost told the Lords there was “a real opportunity to turn away from confrontation, to move beyond our current difficulties and put in place a new, and better, equilibrium” in the talks.

And he said it was “not inevitable” that article 16 is triggered. He said: “In my view, this talks process has not reached its end.

“Although we have been talking nearly four weeks now, there remain possibilities that the talks have not yet seriously examined, including many approaches suggested by the UK.

“There is more to do and I will certainly not give up on this process unless and until it is abundantly clear that nothing more can be done. We are certainly not there yet.

“If, however, we do in due course reach that point, the article 16 safeguards will be our only option.”

He added: “I can reassure the House that if article 16 were to be used, we would of course set out our case with confidence and explain that case to any interested party.”

The UK government has set the EU a December deadline to find a solution on the Northern Ireland protocol, which was agreed as a way to maintain a free-flowing land border on the island of Ireland after Brexit.

The arrangement effectively keeps Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single market for goods, resulting in some checks for products crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain.

But Mr Johnson and Lord Frost have claimed the EU’s interpretation of the deal has led to difficulties. He said: “I gently suggest that our European friends should stay calm and keep things in proportion.

“They might remind themselves that no government and no country has a greater interest in stability and security in Northern Ireland, in the Belfast Agreement, than we do.

“We are hardly likely to proceed in a way that puts all that at risk. “If the EU were to choose to react in a disproportionate way, and decide to aggravate the problems in Northern Ireland rather than reduce them, that is, of course, a matter for them.

“At that point we would be entitled to come to our own judgment about how much value we could attach to their commitment to supporting the peace process and the people of Northern Ireland as against protecting their own interests.”

‘Aggressive move’

Former British secretary of state for Northern Ireland Peter Hain has said the UK's suspension of parts of the Northern Ireland Brexit deal would be a "very aggressive and bombastic move".

Irish and British parliamentarians attending a virtual meeting of Oireachtas committees expressed grave concern about the British government's threat to trigger article 16.

Lord Hain, a Labour Party peer, said he feared the move by UK government "has been coming for a long time" and saw it as a confrontation with Brussels, not aimed at solving a problem but "designed to appeal to the Conservative Party's Brexit base".

This would amount to a “total and radical departure from the close relationship of trust that was painstakingly built over decades between Dublin and London”, Lord Hain told the Oireachtas committees on EU affairs, Brexit and the Belfast Agreement.

Given the “tangled history” between the two countries, any attempt “to destroy that trust is very, very serious”, said the British politician, who served as British secretary of state for Northern Ireland between 2005 and 2007.

Lord Hain was speaking as a member of the House of Lords European affairs sub-committee on the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The protocol

The protocol is the special Brexit deal agreed between the UK and the EU to prevent a hard border re-emerging on the island of Ireland.

The arrangement keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods and allows free-flowing trade with the EU but creates a trade border between Northern Ireland and Britain.

Unionists argue that the protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. The British government objects to the European Court of Justice being the final court of appeal.

Lord Hain told the meeting of Irish and British parliamentarians he believed the UK government’s objections were “about political identity rather than trade”.

Liberal Democrat peer Lord Thomas said the “machinery was there” to create a new court within the European Court of Justice structure that could be manned by three or four judges from the EU and three or four judges from the UK with an independent president sitting above them holding the balance.

Baroness Nuala O’Loan, the former Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, said “the people of Northern Ireland really are not complaining about the protocol”.

“They are finding ways to make it work,” she said.

Labour TD Brendan Howlin said the threat to trigger article 16 was “baffling” and would leave Irish-British relations built over 20 years “fundamentally fractured”. – Additional reporting PA

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn

Cormac McQuinn is a Political Correspondent at The Irish Times