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Ireland's EU commissioner on Article 16: 'If I had been consulted on this, it wouldn't have happened'

Mairead McGuinness said mechanisms are in place to ensure such a situation doesn’t arise again.

Mairead McGuinness
Mairead McGuinness
Image: RollingNews.ie

IRELAND’S EU COMMISSIONER has said that she has put mechanisms in place to ensure that the European Commission’s triggering of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol in a row over vaccines won’t happen again. 

Mairead McGuinness, who’s the EU Commissioner for financial services and financial stability, told Philip Boucher-Hayes on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne that if she had been consulted prior to the signal to trigger Article 16, then “it wouldn’t have happened”. 

Late last month, the European Commission decided to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol – agreed as part of the Brexit deal with the UK – in a row over the supply of vaccines to Europe. 

The move blindsided governments in Dublin and London, which could have meant checks between the six and 26 counties. EU officials quickly rescinded the plan the same evening and acknowledged it as a mistake. 

It has provoked fury, particularly from unionists in the North who now want the protocol scrapped. Under the protocol, Northern Ireland continues to follow many EU rules regarding trade while still remaining part of the United Kingdom. It means that there are some checks now put in place on goods travelling between the North and Britain. 

It is argued that it has effectively created a border between the Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain. 

Speaking this morning, McGuinness said that while the concerns of unionists shouldn’t be dismissed, the current regime arose from the British decision to leave the EU. 

“Some of the issues that people find difficult to understand, like buying daffodil bulbs from GB and you can’t import them into Northern Ireland,” she said. “I mean if you’re gardener you just want to do your garden. The UK chose a particular form of Brexit [...] so therefore there are rules that now apply. ”

She said that some supermarkets were very well prepared for the change brought by the new system and that the EU is very open to listening to the concerns of businesses.

“Northern Ireland is in a very unique situation,” McGuinness said. “The protocol was put in place to try and solve a difficult problem.”

Turning to the decision to trigger Article 16 from the EU in the context of a row over vaccine supply, the EU commissioner called it a “dreadful mistake”. 

She said: “If I had been consulted on this, it wouldn’t have happened. I think what is really important that we acknowledge as a commission the hurt and upset it has caused. 

It happened because there was a rush to try to resolve a conflict with AstraZeneca [...] and the normal process was overlooked. I can give you a guarantee it won’t happen again. 
We should not dismiss what happened, we should own up. On my watch, if this happens again it would be a horrendous happening.

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She added that she had put mechanisms in place to ensure this wouldn’t happen again, including regular discussions with European Commission vice president Maroš Šefčovič.

Šefčovič received a grilling earlier this week from Oireachtas members over the scandal, and reiterated that mistakes were made. 

The senior figure overseeing Europe’s implementation of post-Brexit Northern Ireland trade arrangements is also due to meet Belfast business leaders later today. 

Šefčovič has expressed willingness to show flexibility but maintained the agreement with London to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland would not be scrapped.

With reporting from the Press Association

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Sean Murray

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