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Orange men march during an anti Northern Ireland Protocol rally and parade in March. PA

Taoiseach and Boris Johnson hold 'serious' talks over Protocol

The protocol effectively creates checks on goods flowing from Britain to Northern Ireland to allow an open border.

LAST UPDATE | 10 May 2022

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has urged UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson not to take any “unilateral actions” in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol amid reports that the British government is planning on doing just that. 

Martin and Johnson held an “extensive discussion” by phone this morning, with Downing Street saying following their conversation the Protocol situation is  “now very serious”.

The context for their conversation is Northern Ireland’s Assembly elections last week which saw the DUP lose their position as the largest party and replaced by Sinn Féin. 

A majority of the MLAs elected to the Assembly do not favour a scrapping of the Protocol but the DUP is refusing to consider joining an Executive unless there is “decisive action” on the Protocol. 

The Protocol is a post-Brexit mechanism agreed between the UK and EU that allows Northern Ireland to effectively remain part of the EU’s single market for goods while also being part of the UK’s customs territory.

To maintain EU standards within the single market, some checks are required on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain, something which is strongly objected to by unionists politicians in Northern Ireland.

Earlier today it emerged that British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will reportedly move to discard large portions of the Protocol after giving up on Brexit negotiations with the EU.

The London Times reported officials working for Truss have drawn up draft legislation to unilaterally remove the need for checks on all goods being sent from Britain for use in Northern Ireland. The paper said the legislation could be enacted as soon as next week. 

The law would also ensure businesses in Northern Ireland are able to disregard EU rules and regulations and remove the power of the European Court of Justice to rule on issues relating to the region, the paper said.

Importantly, the bill would override the Protocol agreed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in 2019 and mean the UK had breached its obligations under the Brexit agreement.

The Times said Truss is understood to have concluded talks with the EU and has been told the proposed bill could lead to a trade war with the bloc.

In a statement from the Department of An Taoiseach this afternoon, the department said that Martin urged Johnson to engage in “intensified EU-UK discussions” to address issues relating to the Protocol. 

“He set out clearly his serious concerns at any unilateral action at this time, which would be destabilising in Northern Ireland and erode trust,” the statement said. 

The Taoiseach pointed out that the EU has engaged constructively in the Protocol discussions, addressing the issue of medicines, and last October putting forward a substantial package of flexibilities and mitigations, including on customs and SPS arrangements. 

Martin and Johnson were said to be in agreement that “a strong functioning Executive” should be put in place in Northern Ireland, with the Taoiseach emphasising the importance of both governments “working together in support of the full operation of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement”. 

A Downing Street account of the call also outlined that the two leaders agreed on the vital importance of restoring the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland as soon as possible.

Johnson was said to have made clear that the situation in respect of the protocol was now very serious. He reiterated that the UK Government would take action to protect peace and political stability in Northern Ireland if solutions could not be found

He also said that the balance of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement was being undermined and the recent elections had further demonstrated that the Protocol was not sustainable in its current form.

“Despite repeated efforts by the UK Government over many months to fix the protocol, including those sections related to the movement of goods and governance, the European Commission had not taken the steps necessary to help address the economic and political disruption on the ground,” a Downing Street spokesperson said.

“The Prime Minister reiterated that the UK Government would take action to protect peace and political stability in Northern Ireland if solutions could not be found.”

Johnson has said he does not plan to be personally involved in the Northern Ireland talks, while Downing Street played down the reported Cabinet rift over the protocol.

Asked about the Government’s position on the protocol and whether there are divisions within Cabinet over proposals to unilaterally scrap it, Johnson’s official spokesman said:

“I wouldn’t say that at all.

I think our preference has always been for a negotiated solution to fix the protocol and we have been clear that we will take further steps if solutions can’t be found.

“No decisions have yet been taken on the way forward. The Deputy Prime Minister made clear the situation, it’s very serious.”

He insisted the proposals put forward by the European Commission “don’t go anywhere near far enough to make the protocol sustainable”, adding: “We believe (they) would take us backwards from where we are today. So no decisions have been taken. But we do reserve the right to take action.”

Speaking this afternoon on RTÉ’s News at One, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said that the Irish government will take part in efforts to return devolved institutions in Northern Ireland

“We’re co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, so we’ll do that,” he said.

“As you know, matters internal to Northern Ireland are considered Strand One issues and they’re issues between the parties and only between the parties, but issues such as the Protocol, such as relations with the EU, such as reforming the system of government in Northern Ireland, they are beyond the Executive and the Assembly. 

“So yes, of course, we’re going to be available to be involved in any talks on the formation of an Executive in Northern Ireland.”

The Vice-President of the European Commission, Maros Sefcovic released a statement this evening in which he called the Protocol an integral part of the EU’s stable relationship with the UK.

“The EU has been open to joint work with the UK on implementing the Protocol to bring long-term legal certainty to the people and businesses in Northern Ireland.  The EU remains open to such discussions.

Only joint solutions will work. Unilateral action by the UK would only make our work on possible solutions more difficult.”

“The Protocol, as a cornerstone of the Withdrawal Agreement, is an international agreement. Its renegotiation is not an option. The European Union is united in this position,” his statement concluded.

- With reporting by Press Association

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