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Taoiseach still has faith in Commission despite Article 16 move but says 'mistakes were made'

Politicians across Ireland and the UK were left blindsided by the move by the EU over concerns about the supply of Covid vaccines.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin
Taoiseach Micheál Martin
Image: PA Images

Updated Jan 31st 2021, 2:03 PM

TAOISEACH MICHEÁL MARTIN has said he still has confidence in the president of the European Commission despite the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol, but that “mistakes were made”.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio One’s This Week, Martin said that Ireland, the EU and the UK have agreed to work together on the protocol to address “teething issues” that arose after the Commission moved to trigger a clause that would prevent a potential flow of vaccines into Northern Ireland from the EU.

After invoking Article 16 to stop the unimpeded flow of vaccines from the European bloc into Northern Ireland, the EU later backtracked, following condemnation from Dublin, London and Belfast.

It is understood that a compromise will see vaccines crossing between the Republic and Northern Ireland being recorded in Dublin, but will not be at risk of being blocked.

Despite the discord, Martin said he still has faith in EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“I’ve had a very good personal engagement with the president of the Commission but mistakes were made here,” he said.

“We’ve made the point that there needs to be engagement on all fronts to dealing with those issues in terms of the smooth operation of the protocol.”

Martin also said that he does not foresee a poll on a united Ireland in the next five years.

“Brexit has created its own consequences and impact in terms of what may happen in Scotland, and my own view I was very anxious to avoid conflating Brexit with the island of Ireland issue in terms of unity,” he said.

He added that the idea of an immediate border poll is “too divisive”.

“Right now I think more the important aspect is to fulfill the potential of the Good Friday Agreement, and in that context, a poll of that kind was always meant to be the end of a process of building up full reconciliation and understanding, and I don’t think we’ve optimized the potential of the agreement enough.”

Speaking to the BBC earlier today, the Taoiseach has said he was given no advance notice of the intention by the EU to trigger Article 16 of the Brexit protocol.

Martin said he first heard about the move in a public statement, and quickly started negotiations with von der Leyen.

Martin told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show: “I had a number of conversations with President von der Leyen and, in the aftermath of those, I also spoke, of course, to the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and we discussed the implications of all of this, and the importance of getting a resolution by the close of that evening, Friday evening, and thankfully the Commission did issue a statement pulling back and reversing its decision.”

Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster described the move by the EU as an “act of hostility” and has urged Johnson to replace the “unworkable” protocol.

Martin disagreed with that assessment, and instead described it as a row between the EU and AstraZeneca.

He stressed that it took four years to negotiate the protocol to facilitate access for Northern Ireland’s economy to the single market as well as to the UK market, and to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The Taoiseach said: “It’s a good thing, the protocol, overall. There are issues there that we have to fine-tune and work out, but essentially I think there are positives there medium term for Northern Ireland in terms of its economic development which we should not underestimate.

“We are only four weeks into the operation of the protocol, there are bound to be teething problems, but I do acknowledge the need for engagement here on all sides, between the European Union, the United Kingdom and the Irish Government, and the Northern Ireland Executive.”

Meanwhile, Martin said there is a “strong sense across Europe” that AstraZeneca has not delivered on commitments around the vaccination.

“There’s a very fair point there which cannot be brushed aside, the problem is the Commission took the wrong mechanism in invoking Article 16 of the protocol to deal with it,” he said.

“What has gone wrong is clearly that the commitments made in terms of volume levels are not being realised in terms of the contractual engagement between the Commission and AstraZeneca.

“The same type of tensions do not appear to have arisen in relation to the other companies.”

Martin also called for calm in relation to the rollout of vaccines.

Reopening

Discussions on the rollout of the vaccines in Ireland has come hand in hand with questions about when Ireland will begin to reopen, particularly around the return of schools.

Martin told RTÉ that there is no definite timeline on the return of schools, but that the plan is to have a phased return of school starting at primary level, with priority placed on the return of special education.

An announcement on the Leaving Certificate might come this week, Martin said, but that what was more important was making sure the ‘Is are dotted and Ts are crossed’ before confirming a decision.

Martin said he understood the need to bring “clarity” to “reduce anxiety and reduce stress for students and their families”.

He said he did not foresee major reopening of society on 5 March, with a “conservative and cautious” approach to be taken on any loosening of restrictions.

Certain sectors, such as education and construction, would be prioritised, while hospitality would wait longer, he noted.

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Global demand

The Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association (IPHA) has welcomed the Taoiseach’s comments on vaccines.

“We all want a way out of the pandemic. We want a route back to normality or, at least, some version of it.

“There are more than 50 Covid-19 vaccine candidates in clinical trials. So far, the European Medicines Agency has approved three safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines, with more due for assessment shorty,” an IPHA spokesperson said.

They added that manufacturing sites “should not face restrictions”.

“The establishment by the European Commission of an export authorisation system for Covid-19 vaccines could jeopardise their supply to people in Europe and around the world.

“Introducing export obstructions could severely limit manufacturers’ capacity to meet global demand.

“Vaccine manufacturers are scaling production at unprecedented speed. Sometimes, things can go wrong. Fluctuations in the supply of doses, though frustrating, can be a feature of manufacturing complex biological products. But companies are working as fast as they can to protect everyone,” a statement noted.

With reporting by Órla Ryan and Lauren Boland

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