Irish government slaps down UK bid to reopen NI protocol

Irish Foreign minister Simon Coveney. [EPA-EFE/PHIL NOBLE]

Irish Foreign minister Simon Coveney ruled out on Thursday (4 February) the possibility of the Northern Ireland protocol being scrapped or renegotiated, following growing pressure on the issue from Boris Johnson’s UK government.

“There is not going to be a very dramatic change,” Coveney told BBC Ulster, adding that “we want the protocol to function in a way that works for everyone, north and south, on the island of Ireland,” he said.

“You’ve got to own the consequences of your own decisions,” Coveney added, in a thinly veiled critique of Brexiteers.

The protocol, which imposes customs requirements on goods from Britain to the island of Ireland, was one of the most controversial issues during the three years of talks on the Withdrawal Agreement that took the UK out of the EU in January 2020.

Johnson’s government has been emboldened by the Commission’s controversial decision last Friday to invoke Article 16 in a bid to prevent exports of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine in the ongoing row over vaccine deliveries, although the EU executive quickly backtracked following an angry reaction from the UK and Irish governments.

Johnson has hinted this week that he could also invoke Article 16, which can be invoked unilaterally if either the UK or the EU believes that the protocol is causing “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”, if the EU did not make concessions on the implementation of the protocol to give businesses more time to adapt to the new customs processes.

On Wednesday, Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič and UK Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove held what both described as a “constructive” meeting of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee at which they reiterated their commitment to “the proper implementation of the Protocol”.

Šefčovič tweeted that the protocol was “a cornerstone of the WA and the only way to protect Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all dimensions, protecting peace & stability on the island of Ireland.”

The two are expected to meet again next week.

“The EU isn’t going to respond on the basis of unilateral demands or threats of consequences if they don’t give the British government what they want,” said Coveney.

On Tuesday evening, the UK government set out its demands to extend the grace period until January 2023 in a letter to the Commission. The first grace period for checks on chilled meats and supermarket supplies ends in March after which the EU’s normal customs process will resume.

Earlier this week the Democratic Unionist party, the biggest player in the province’s devolved government, launched its own campaign to scrap the protocol, which it says separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, the unionist Northern Ireland party, and First Minister of the devolved government, said on Thursday there was “no risk” to the EU single market from goods coming into Northern Ireland.

The DUP opposed the Withdrawal Agreement agreed by Boris Johnson and the EU because of the inclusion of the protocol.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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