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Article 16: Taoiseach warns of 'self-fulfilling prophecy' as UK Brexit Minister tells EU to 'stay calm'

David Frost was speaking in the House of Lords this afternoon.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

Updated Nov 10th 2021, 6:21 PM

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has called on the UK government to “double down on dialogue” over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Martin said it should not be assumed that the British will trigger Article 16 amid heavy speculation that the UK government is preparing to suspend the agreement.

The Taoiseach called for extensive engagement on both sides to avoid the situation coming to pass.

“Discussions are still ongoing. I would just sound a note of caution that we don’t automatically assume that anything is going to be triggered,” he told the Dáil

“I think that’s important. We don’t want a kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy either.

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. What’s important now is that we double down on dialogue and engagement.

Martin said the European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic had put forward a robust set of proposals to tackle operational issues around the protocol.

But he said a demand by UK Brexit Minister David Frost that the oversight role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) on the operation of the protocol be dropped, in advance of those proposals being made, was an attempt to “torpedo” the package.

“I think it’s very regrettable that in advance of the publication of the Sefcovic package, that Lord Frost announced the issue around the ECJ,” he said.

One would have formed the view that was maybe an effort to almost torpedo the Sefcovic package before it was published.

Martin was speaking after Frost had earlier said that the EU should “stay calm” and that the triggering of Article 16 is “not inevitable”. 

The Brexit Minister Frost was speaking in the House of Lords with some suggestions that he was preparing to signal a suspension of the post-Brexit arrangements drawn up with the EU.

Such a move would likely to spark retaliation from the EU, with talk of a suspension of the EU-UK trade deal that could result in a trade war.

Instead, Frost said that the “talks process” between the UK and EU “had 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,” he said. 

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.”

Yesterday, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said there would be “no option” for the EU to respond to the UK triggering of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

Today, he warned UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the  UK will not get a better deal if it triggers Article 16.

“We have an agreement in relation to Northern Ireland, we have an agreement in relation to trade with the European Union. Don’t jeopardise that agreement,” he said.

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

12 months of uncertainty

A suspension of the EU-UK trade deal would require a year’s notice and would spark further uncertainty for businesses in Northern Ireland, the Republic and the UK throughout 2022. 

Rejecting the argument from Brussels that triggering Article 16 would be an aggressive act, Frost said said it would be “entirely reasonable”. 

“They seem to be claiming that it would be entirely unreasonable for the British Government, uniquely, to use these wholly legitimate safeguard provisions within the Treaty, designed precisely to deal with situations like the current one,” he said.

“They also suggest that we can only take this action at the price of massive and disproportionate retaliation .”

He added:

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 (Good Friday) 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.”

The UK government minister told fellow peers in the House of Lords: “I do repeat that in our view Article 16 is not inevitable.”

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Oireachtas committee 

Frost was speaking after other members of the House of Lords earlier told an Oireachtas committee that a no-deal Brexit will be back on the table if the UK proceeds with triggering Article 16.

Michael Jay, chairman of the House of Lords sub-Committee on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, said a triggering of Article 16 risks resetting negotiations and could result in a no-deal Brexit.

He said: “I agree with you very much on what to say about the risks of Article 16 being imposed or being triggered and the response to Article 16 by the European Union, potentially leading to all the complicated negotiations with the prospect of a no-deal as the last stage. That is one end of the spectrum.

“The other end of the spectrum, which I think we can’t rule it out, and I certainly wouldn’t want to rule out, although I must say that the prospects are not looking brilliant at the moment, is for a negotiated settlement to be reached between now and Christmas or over Christmas.

Peter Hain, a former secretary of state for Northern Ireland, told the committee that a move to trigger Article 16 by the UK Government would be “aggressive and bombastic”.

He said: “If Lord Frost does announce the triggering of Article 16, that is a very aggressive and bombastic move by the British Government, that I … fear has been coming for a while.

“We’re going to need to work together with you parliamentarians across the Irish Sea to try and cope with the fallout because I think it’ll be significant.”

- With reporting by Press Association

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Rónán Duffy

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