UK protocol bill ‘profoundly dispiriting’, says Taoiseach

Deepening divisions highlighted by starkly different takes on protocol legislation

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said the British protocol legislation announced on Monday was “a profoundly dispiriting” and “damaging moment” in terms of the Belfast Agreement.

“It demonstrates the degree to which the British government seems oblivious now to the various sets of relationships that it has engaged in, and indeed, to an international agreement that it itself signed up to,” he said.

Mr Martin said the move was “reckless” and had the potential to destabilise politics in Northern Ireland. Mr Martin said he believed the British government “don’t fully get” or “don’t fully understand the DNA” of the Belfast Agreement.

He said the European Union would remain “resolute”, “firm” and “measured” in terms of its response and that with “substantive negotiations” between the EU and UK government issues “could have been resolved and still can be resolved”.

On Monday the European Commission warned the UK government that its actions on the Northern Ireland protocol could undermine the entire trade agreement between the EU and the UK.

In its response to legislation that would unilaterally cancel parts of the protocol agreed between the UK and the EU in 2019, the commission said it would be likely to restart a stalled legal action against the UK government, and could also initiate a separate new enforcement action against the UK.

Earlier Mr Martin described the legislation as “a fundamental breach of trust” which “violates the whole concept of trust”.

“In addition to that, it’s very much anti-business and anti-industry,” Mr Martin said on Tuesday.

“I don’t think it’s well thought through and certainly doesn’t match the realities on the ground . . . So for example those involved in manufacturing are doing very well under the protocol and they’re particularly concerned by the uncertainty that has been created, but also because this represents an undermining of the conditions which were conducive to a good manufacturing performance.

“The main losers are the people of Northern Ireland,” he continued, adding that business groups were strongly in favour of resolving any difficulties with the protocol through negotiations.

He said a lot of EU leaders no longer trusted that the UK would keep its word in any future agreement.

British foreign secretary Liz Truss had earlier on Tuesday told BBC Radio the Belfast Agreement was “being undermined because the protocol isn’t working”.

“The fundamental issue is that the EU has not agreed to change the text of the protocol itself,” Ms Truss said. She added that unless the EU changes the text, “negotiations have reached a dead end”.

She also told BBC Northern Ireland she expected the parties in Stormont to form an administration “as soon as possible”, but would not be drawn on whether that should be before the summer. The DUP has said it will continue blocking the formation of an Executive until the legislation to set aside the protocol is passed.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald told the Dáil the move was “disgraceful and utterly reckless”. She said the Tory government was pursuing a “hostile, damaging attack against the Good Friday Agreement”. “Mr Johnson’s belligerent approach to Ireland is part of a cynical attempt to claim to power in Britain at any cost,” she said.

“It jeopardises so much achieved by so many over such a long period of time. It fundamentally undermines the Brexit protections for Ireland that were so hard won and it risks serious economic and political damage.”

The Dublin Central TD said an all of Oireachtas approach was needed in standing up to the British prime minister’s “renewed attempt to bully Ireland”. “We will not be bullied and we know that we’re not alone,” she added. “Boris Johnson’s dangerous move has been strongly condemned in the United States, in Europe, indeed across the world.”

Speaking to the BBC, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the British move was “not consistent with international law” but he said it was more concerning to him that it was “a new low in British-Irish relations, certainly in the last 25 years or so”.

He said there had been no engagement with the British side since the beginning of February, but that now the British government said it had to take unilateral action because negotiations were going nowhere.

“This is like someone who takes out a mortgage and then a year later says to the bank: ‘Sorry I don’t want to pay any longer’, and ‘Here’s what I’m going to pay and you have to accept it or I’m going to do it anyway’,” he told the Today programme on BBC Radio.

However, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said, “Simon Coveney fails to recognise the extent of the problems that the protocol is causing for Northern Ireland.”

He told the BBC: “It is not just about trade, it is not just about the difficulties it is creating for business, it is not just about the impact this is having on the cost of living for every consumer in Northern Ireland, it is also about our political institutions.

“It is about stability. Not a single unionist MLA elected to the Assembly last month supports the protocol, and without that cross-community consensus the political institutions cannot operate.

“I think the Irish Government need to get real, they need to understand the extent of the problem here and stop deluding themselves that it is some kind of minor issue.

“As for negotiations, Simon Coveney talks about sitting around the table — the problem is we’ve had two years of negotiation and no progress.”

Sinn Féin Northern leader Michelle O’Neill called on the DUP to work with Sinn Féin and other parties. It was “unfathomable” that the DUP had taken this stance, she said, adding it was not a tenable position to take at a time when the public needed help with the cost-of-living crisis.

British prime minister Boris Johnson’s actions were unacceptable and he had not engaged in any meaningful discussions to resolve the issue since February, Ms O’Neill said, adding the Executive should be formed immediately.

Every effort had to be made not to unravel the Belfast Agreement, and there was a need to be very careful, to look for practical solutions and to guard the peace process, she said.

The director-general of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce, John McGrane, described the move by the British government to publish a Bill to change the Northern Ireland protocol as “a kick in the teeth” to the diplomats and officials who “worked extremely hard to develop a viable set of solutions”.

Speaking on Newstalk Breakfast and RTÉ Radio’s Morning Ireland, Mr McGrane said the British proposal was “highly alarming”. This was a trade issue that had been “nearly resolved”.

The proposed Bill would be “extremely damaging” to businesses and could “wipe out” the viability of farming in Northern Ireland, he warned.

The wellbeing of businesses elsewhere in the UK could also be damaged as international companies would not be likely to do business with a government that was willing “to walk away from deals”. Even if the Bill did not go through, the damage was already done, he said as “credibility is gone”.

The British Irish Chamber had worked hard to produce a menu of possibilities to resolve difficulties with the protocol, Mr McGrane said.

Two such proposals were a veterinary agreement on animal and food security that would be universally applied, and a joint committee which he described as “a sensible structure” — a forum where any issues could be addressed without the threat of political instability.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Powell, who served as an adviser to the former British prime minister Tony Blair at the time of the Belfast Agreement in 1998, has said the idea that all issues in Northern Ireland require cross-community consent is wrong.

“Consent does not apply to all issues. If it did then Brexit wouldn’t have happened in NI — over 60 per cent voted against. It is bizarre to suggest consent applies to one part of Brexit — the protocol — but not the rest. Especially when a majority in NI are content with the protocol,” Mr Powell said in a series of posts on Twitter.

“Even if cross-community agreement applied only to the protocol it would still be bizarre to say we will only talk to one party, the DUP, about it. If there is an issue then the British and Irish Government are required to discuss it with all the parties in NI, not just one,” he said.

“Suggesting, as Johnson does, if the DUP will not go into government until the protocol is abolished we should give in and abolish it, is like saying if SF refuse to go into government until there is a united Ireland, we would give in. The solution is negotiation, not capitulation.”

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns

Sarah Burns is a reporter for The Irish Times