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Arlene Foster calls Simon Coveney 'tone deaf to unionist concerns' as talks start over NI Protocol

Writing in this morning’s Daily Telegraph, Arlene Foster said there is “growing anger at the current arrangements in Northern Ireland”.

File photo. Boris Johnson and Arlene Foster.
File photo. Boris Johnson and Arlene Foster.
Image: Brian Lawless/PA Images

Updated Feb 4th 2021, 9:15 AM

A WAR OF words is continuing over post-Brexit checks in Northern Ireland, with unionist leaders calling for the Northern Ireland Protocol to be scrapped and the Irish government insisting it needs to stay.

The EU and UK are in talks to discuss possible solutions to how the Protocol has been implemented, after British Prime Minister told Brussels he will consider triggering Article 16 which would unilaterally stop barriers being put up in the Irish Sea.

NI First Minister Arlene Foster said the Northern Ireland Protocol risked the country’s “political and economic links” to the UK and called for it to be replaced.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney told BBC Good Morning Ulster: “We need to be truthful with everybody – the Protocol is not going to be scrapped.”

He said ministers wanted to be helpful and flexibilities were possible but the problems were a consequence of the UK’s Brexit negotiating stance.

Coveney said: “There is not going to be very dramatic change.”

Foster also appeared on BBC Good Morning Ulster today, and accused Coveney of being “tone deaf to the concerns of unionism”. 

“Just carry on regardless of the fact that there is not one unionist politician in Northern Ireland that supports the Protocol, but what about it, we will just continue on.”

“These are not teething problems,” she said.

“People need to get their heads out of the sand and get their fingers out of their ears and actually listen to what people in Northern Ireland are having to deal with.”

The Protocol

The agreement on Northern Ireland was seen as a way of resolving the main sticking point in Brexit negotiations – the Irish border – and sees checks focused on goods traded between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and allowing them to move freely on the island of Ireland.

Concerns over the protocol and its impact on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK were exacerbated last week when Article 16 was briefly triggered to close the border to exports of the coronavirus vaccine from the Republic.

European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič is due in the UK next week to discuss the issue, and Boris Johnson has not ruled out a reciprocal triggering of the emergency brake, telling MPs: “We will do everything we need to do, whether legislatively or indeed by triggering Article 16 of the protocol, to ensure that there is no barrier down the Irish Sea.”

Šefčovič and Michael Gove held a meeting with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland yesterday and, in a statement following the meeting, the Cabinet Office minister and his EU counterpart said they would “work intensively to find solutions to outstanding issues”.

However, writing in the Daily Telegraph, Foster said Johnson had committed to protect the UK internal market, and “must now back up those words with tangible actions that protect the integrity of the whole of the United Kingdom”.

The DUP leader wrote: “The Northern Ireland Protocol has not worked, cannot work and in light of our proposals to the government, needs to be replaced.

“Indeed, across Northern Ireland there is growing anger at the current arrangements. The delicate political balance and relationships in Northern Ireland have been damaged and disturbed by the Protocol.”

Ian Paisley Jr, also of the DUP, echoed his party leader’s words, telling BBC’s Newsnight: “The first 34 days of this year have been absolute and total chaos for the citizens of Northern Ireland.

“This has been an unmitigated disaster. I can’t imagine that’s what they planned but this is how it has worked out and therefore we’ve got to fix it and fix it fast.”

Separately, physical inspections on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, which are required under the protocol, have been suspended amid threats and intimidation of staff.

Police have insisted there is no evidence that loyalist paramilitaries are involved in the sinister campaign, instead blaming disgruntled individuals and small groups.

Unionists and loyalists are deeply unhappy with the new arrangements, which came into force at the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December, believing the protocol has created a barrier between the region and the rest of the UK.

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Sinn Féin’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said Šefčovič was keen on finding a solution and did not intend to cause problems when Article 16 was triggered.

She said: “He was very gracious in his apology around that and recognised that it caused some tensions

“I accept that apology in the way in which it was intended.

“There are flexibilities inbuilt (in the protocol) which he thinks haven’t even had a chance to work out yet.”

O’Neill welcomed his commitment to travel to the UK to find ways to resolve the issues that have emerged, adding that she believed it was a “very pragmatic and very constructive way” to move forward.

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