UK has shown willingness for ‘serious dialogue’ on NI protocol — Coveney

Michel Barnier calls on Liz Truss to ‘seize this window of opportunity to build better relations’ with EU

Messages from the UK government on the Northern Ireland protocol are “quite different” to those of a few months ago with a willingness for “serious dialogue”, according to Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.

Following a one-on-one meeting with Northern Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris at Hillsborough Castle on Wednesday, the pair spoke of their close working relationship (they knew each other as MEPs) and commitment to restoring Stormont.

Mr Coveney told reporters it was “absolutely doable” to break the powersharing deadlock before the October 28th deadline, when Mr Heaton-Harris is legally obliged to order an election.

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There has been no functioning government in the North since May’s Assembly elections as the DUP is boycotting its formation until its protocol concerns are dealt with.

Describing the fallout from Brexit as a “a source of unnecessary tension”, Mr Coveney said it was time to “move beyond” that.

“We see the messages coming from London now as quite different from the messages we were getting some months ago,” he added.

“We do believe there is a willingness now for an honest and open, serious dialogue about trying to put these issues to rest.”

The controversial protocol Bill, which gives UK ministers the power to scrap parts of the trade deal, was introduced in June and is now before the House of Lords for scrutiny having passed through the Commons.

When asked if the UK government was retreating from the protocol legislation, Mr Heaton-Harris said he preferred a negotiated settlement with the European Union, but insisted that the UK government would continue with its legislation.

Referring to their morning meeting, the Northern Secretary said they had a “fantastic conversation” and will have further discussions in coming weeks.

“I do have a good relationship with Simon and always have done. I do trust him as well. I know he is a man of his word. I believe he trusts me.”

“It is important the targets we have are mutually agreed, that we both understand the ultimate importance of getting an Executive up and running by 28th October. We will do everything we can.”

The pair also spoke about the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement next April and the need to re-establish the North’s political institutions before then.

Last week there were reports the UK deadline to resolve the Stormont impasse could be extended until next Easter, to coincide with a State visit by US president Joe Biden marking the anniversary of the historic peace deal.

The development came to light following a meeting between UK prime minister Liz Truss and Mr Biden in New York.

Mr Coveney said: “The idea that we would be leading up to the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement with the institutions collapsed, with Northern Ireland coming out of a winter of discontent in terms of the cost of living, without a first minister and deputy first minister in place — it really would be an extraordinary failing of politics.”

Former EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier later gave a speech in Iveagh House in Dublin marking Ireland’s 50th year as an EU member state, where he and Mr Coveney called for “credible” proposals on the protocol from UK prime minister Liz Truss, whose new administration faces an abrupt government debt sell-off after a botched mini-budget.

Asked about the financial market turmoil, Mr Barnier said he would not comment on the difficulties facing Britain’s government.

“Simply speaking I think that everything is more difficult because the UK is no longer in the [European] single market but I wish the best for the UK. I don’t want to comment on the domestic politics of the UK,” Mr Barnier said.

“I wish the best to Mrs Truss and I hope she will seize this window of opportunity to build better relations with the EU and with all of us, in particular to respect the signature of the UK and the Irish protocol.”

Speaking in his Department after Mr Barnier’s speech, Mr Coveney dismissed suggestions that financial volatility would make it more difficult to strike a deal on the protocol. “The opposite will be my interpretation of it,” Mr Coveney said.

“I think the more challenges that the UK government has domestically and the more challenges that the UK government recognises in terms of international challenges that we need to face together, the less we all need to be expending energy on differences and tension around how the protocol is designed and implemented,” he said.

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham

Seanín Graham is Northern Correspondent of The Irish Times

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley

Arthur Beesley is Current Affairs Editor of The Irish Times