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Northern Ireland

Government seeking ‘early warning system’ on use of Article 16

European Affairs Minister Thomas Byrne said the Government is seeking a new safety clause.

THE GOVERNMENT IS to seek an “early warning system” on the use of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol on Brexit.

London, Belfast and Dublin were blindsided by a recent attempt by the European Commission to invoke Article 16, in a row over the supply of vaccines to Europe.

The Article overrides part of the Northern Ireland Protocol which prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland, and was intended as an emergency measure not to be used.

The European Commission backtracked on the decision, but it has caused massive political fallout, particularly in the North. 

European Affairs Minister Thomas Byrne said the Government is seeking a new safety clause, to prevent a repeat of those events.

He told the Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs: “The reaction of Government that day was complete shock and surprise, and with no knowledge of what was being planned.

“We had spent the previous few weeks being asked about Article 16 from another perspective, and quite rightly pointing out that this was a pretty standard safeguarding clause in the trade agreement.

“And not designed to either eliminate the protocol or not designed to be used, except in the most extreme circumstances.”

He said the Government is continuing to engage on multiple levels with the European Commission and the UK Government to find a resolution.

Byrne added: “What the Government wants fundamentally is an early warning system to be put in place.

“There is a view, and it’s a risky view, that, yes, the Commission made a mistake, yes the Commission acknowledged its mistake, and that is everything solved now.

“Clearly that’s not the case because the consequences of this are continuing.”

Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond questioned if the damage caused by the incident was fully appreciated by the EU.

He said: “I think the damage has been lasting. I think what we saw in the days after was that people leapt at the opportunity where a mistake was made.

“Are the British government now in danger of pushing this too far? We see extra demands, we see a consistent underlining that they are now preparing to trigger Article 16.

“We look at the, albeit typical British newspapers, and they’re demanding a renegotiation less than six weeks after the trade deal was agreed.

“I’m very worried that less than six weeks in, people are really damaging the house of cards.”

But Byrne said that despite the damage caused, Article 16 will not be removed from the protocol.

He said: “Even the Article 16 invocation, or attempted invocation, a couple of weeks ago didn’t eliminate the protocol.

“The protocol is still there to avoid a hard border on the island, to make sure people and goods can move freely and that Northern Ireland remains part of the single market of the European Union.”

Irish officials are meeting with senior figures in the European Commission on Tuesday to discuss mechanisms to avoid a repeat of the Article 16 affair.

Byrne said he would not describe the engagement as a “key crunch meeting”.

He added: “There will be ongoing engagements. We may not have resolution on this today, but I think safe to say at the moment, people are fully aware the significance of what has transpired.”

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