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NI Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney, Justice Minister Helen McEntee and NI minister Steve Baker attend the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Steve Baker
NI Protocol

Coveney: Politicians ‘may need to surprise people’ to resolve row over NI Protocol

The Foreign Affairs Minister met with Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris in London today.

LAST UPDATE | 7 Oct 2022

SIMON COVENEY HAS said that politicians may need to “surprise people” to resolve the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol, amid fresh hopes that a compromise can be reached.

The Foreign Affairs Minister also said that renewed technical discussions between the UK and the EU this week had gone “reasonably well”.

Recent days have been dominated by renewed hopes in Brussels and Dublin that the UK could be in a mood to reach a deal, after months of wrangling over the post-Brexit settlement for the region.

As well as the exchange of warm words, the attendance of British Prime Minister Liz Truss at a European summit in Prague on Thursday also prompted speculation that a thaw in relations between the EU and the UK could be possible.

In London today to attend a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, Coveney and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris offered a largely united front, expressing hope that this time a solution can be brokered.

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly met Coveney in London last night, with the pair expressing warm words and a desire for close co-operation.

Negotiations between UK and EU officials also restarted yesterday afternoon.

“Political leadership is about making things happen and sometimes surprising people, and I think that’s what we need to do over the next few weeks, to provide reassurance,” Coveney said.

“Our focus is on timelines here. Can we find a way of making a big step forward before the end of October that can be a basis for reassuring particularly the unionist community that makes sense for them to be part of an executive and functioning assembly?

“I don’t think we can get everything agreed in the space of three weeks, that is completely unrealistic. But the question is can we make progress that is measurable and serious in that period where people can see we’re on a course that the people can start believing in?”

british-irish-intergovernmental-conference Steve Baker, Chris Heaton-Harris, Simon Coveney and Helen McEntee speaking during the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. PA PA

Heaton-Harris said: “I think it’s a fool’s gold looking for timelines here. When you set yourself a deadline and a timeline, you’ve set yourself up to be a hostage of fortune and I just refuse to.”

The Secretary of State, flanked by Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker, also repeated his intention to call an election if the DUP does not return to the executive table by the legal deadline of 28 October.

Current legislation says that if Stormont is not restored by then, then Heaton-Harris should call a new election.

A joint communique, issued after the meeting, committed both sides to “doing everything possible” to restore power-sharing.

Talks between the UK and Ireland are expected to intensify over coming weeks to avoid another “unnecessary” poll, Coveney told reporters.

He also said he was “very positive” that a solution can be found over the Protocol, which was agreed by the UK and the EU as part of the Withdrawal Agreement and sought to avoid a hard border with Ireland after Brexit.

The arrangements have created trade barriers on goods being shipped from Britain to Northern Ireland and are vehemently opposed by many unionists in Northern Ireland, with the DUP currently blocking the formation of a power-sharing executive in Belfast in protest.

Heaton-Harris said: “I want to be very positive about the chances of getting a negotiated solution.

“I believe we’re all working in good spirit with good co-operation to deliver on the changes that are required for the protocol to be fixed or the issues within the protocol to be fixed. And we need to we need to show some progress on that.”

Relations between the EU and the UK had been soured by the UK Government’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which was introduced into the Commons by then-foreign secretary Truss.

The proposed legislation, which has cleared the House of Commons and will be debated at second reading by the House of Lords next week, would rip up large swathes of the agreement, and critics have accused the UK of acting in breach of international law.

Heaton-Harris defended the UK’s right to push ahead with the Bill, but said it would be a “redundant piece of legislation” if a deal was reached.

Coveney said the Government was looking for a “nil-all draw” in negotiations between the UK and the EU to resolve the row over the protocol.

The Government has been among the strongest critics of the Bill, but Coveney appeared upbeat today about the opportunity for a deal presented by the new-look Truss administration.

“I think the conversations we’re having now with the British Government certainly suggest to me that we are in a different space now, one we haven’t been in for quite some time,” he said.

“What we’re after here is a nil-all draw, where everybody can walk away feeling that they haven’t won or lost, but they can live with the outcome.”

Tánaiste right about Protocol ‘being too strict’

Speaking yesterday, Coveney backed the Tánaiste as simply “stating a fact” when he conceded that the Northern Ireland Protocol was a “little too strict”.

The Foreign Affairs Minister said Leo Varadkar was “right” that the protocol is working without being fully operational and the EU is willing to be more flexible.

Varadkar said yesterday that the protocol was working despite not being fully implemented, demonstrating there was room for “further flexibility for some changes”.

Speaking on RTÉ, Coveney said: “It is clear because of the compromises that have come from the EU in recent months that they are willing to look at more flexibility and support a lot more flexibility in terms of how the protocol is implemented than was the position at the start.

“So, Leo is right on that.”

He added: “Maros Sefcovic, who’s the key negotiator on the EU side, has already published a number of papers to show that the EU is willing to be a lot more flexible. So, Leo was just stating a fact.”

Coveney said relationships were changing and there were efforts on both sides to improve trust in Dublin and London.

“There is certainly a new era of positivity and I think that has created a flicker of optimism,” he said.

But he warned that nobody should “get carried away” with the “warm language at the moment”.

“I certainly think we should recognise that there is a genuine effort coming from this new team in the British Government to try to reach out to Dublin, and indeed to Brussels, and sending the signal that they’re up for a serious discussion to try to resolve these issues,” he added.

“But time will tell whether the compromises necessary to get a deal are possible.”

Asked about the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill going through the UK parliament, Coveney said negotiators should “ignore” the bill.

“I don’t think we should focus on it right now,” he said. “This is a bill that’s not going to become law any time soon.”

He added: “We expect it to be stuck in the system for quite some time. That gives us a window of opportunity to negotiate an outcome that doesn’t involve unilateral action or unilateral legislation, which as I’ve said many times would cause an awful lot more problems than it will solve.

“I think the focus to be fair on all sides, the British government, the Irish government, and the European Commission, is to effectively ignore that legislation for now and to focus on honest, real dialogue, which we haven’t had, by the way, since February, to try to make a breakthrough here.”

Coveney added that if a breakthrough is not made by October 28 the Northern Ireland Secretary will be obliged to set a new date for elections in the region, which he warned would “take us backwards”.

‘Space needs to be created’

Speaking in Prague, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he “would not understate the difficulties” in attempting to find a resolution to the impasse.

He reiterated that space needs to be created for negotiators to work and that he would not provide daily commentary on the matter.

“I do think space needs to be created,” the Taoiseach said.

“I think I would not understate the difficulties that are there. The European Union and the UK Government are beginning the process. I think we should allow space to see what emerges from that.”

Asked about the warm reception Truss received at the European summit in Prague on Thursday, Martin said: “The UK Government is determined to make sure that there’s a constructive relationship with the European Union, and with key member states, not least because of the very big geopolitical issues facing us.”

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