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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speaking to the media outside Stormont Hotel in Belfast PA
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Taoiseach hopes agreement on NI Protocol can be reached to restore power sharing

The Taoiseach is due to meet with leaders of multiple parties later today.

LAST UPDATE | 12 Jan 2023

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR has said that he is hopeful that an agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol can be reached between the EU and UK that will allow power sharing to be restored.

It comes as Varadkar and Tánaiste Micheál Martin were in Northern Ireland today for a series of meetings with political leaders.

Speaking to reporters in Belfast this afternoon, Varadkar said that he was convinced that all parties in Northern Ireland were committed to devolution, despite the DUP continuing to block the Assembly and Executive due to disagreement over the Protocol.

“I think it is fair to say that all five parties are committed to devolution, I am convinced they are sincere about that. They want to get the Assembly up and running, want to get the executive working again,” Varadkar said.

“Unlocking that is a requirement that we come to an agreement on the protocol and those discussions are now underway between the European Commission and the UK Government.

 ”I am hopeful that it will be possible to come to an agreement on the protocol that will allow it to work more effectively, hopefully become more acceptable broadly across society here and will then allow the institutions to be re-established.”

Varadkar admitted that mistakes had been made and that the implementation of the Protocol had been “too strict”, adding that relations between Ireland, the UK and the EU had all been strained due to Brexit.

“Certainly since then [Brexit] lots of us have made mistakes. I have acknowledged that the way the protocol was implemented was too strict and too rigid and that created real difficulties,” Varadkar said.

“I am totally of the view that we can work together to make changes that are necessary, that can get back to a very low number of checks.

“We would like to get to the point where we can agree something that works for everyone and works on a cross-community basis.”

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said that Varadkar now had a “better understanding” of the issues created by the Protocol.

All-party talks

It comes a day after Sinn Féin and the SDLP pulled out of all-party talks with UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Heaton-Harris, after Mary Lou McDonald was prevented from taking part.

The Sinn Féin leader labelled her exclusion from the talks as “absolutely bizarre and unprecedented” and said that the UK Government needed to recognise the “democratic mandate” that her party had.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland today she said the situation was “all the more bizarre because I have lost count of the numbers of meetings that I’ve done with Secretaries of State and indeed with British Prime Ministers.”

McDonald continued: “We were told that this was a matter of protocol. The government here in Dublin have since clarified that there is no protocol issue.”

“I’ve written to the British Prime Minister to air my concerns. I can only hope that lessons will be learned and that we won’t have a repeat of this distraction politics, which was most unhelpful yesterday, but we crack on today.”

However, Heaton-Harris said that McDonald was not invited to the talks due to her membership “of a parliament in an EU member state”.

“There are many factors which go into the thought process. One, to be quite frank, is that the UK Government is negotiating with the European Union,” Heaton-Harris said.

“We wanted to update Northern Ireland parties on that negotiation and, with the greatest of respect, Mary Lou is a representative of a parliament in an EU member state.

“That might not have been seen as a wise thing to do.”

However, Donaldson criticised Sinn Féin for boycotting the talks, saying that the party’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill was invited.

brexit DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson following his meeting with the Taoiseach this afternoon PA PA

“If we are into a situation where Michelle O’Neill can only attend meetings with UK Government ministers if she is accompanied by the leader of Sinn Fein in Dublin, if she has to have a minder with her, that has very serious implications for future arrangements in Northern Ireland if Michelle O’Neill were to become the first minister.”

He added that while progress was being made by both the EU and UK, they weren’t “anywhere close to a deal” on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The DUP is continuing to block the sitting of the Assembly and the establishment of an Executive over the Protocol, and say they will do so until they are satisfied with an agreement.

Yesterday, Varadkar told reporters at a post-Cabinet briefing that he hoped McDonald’s exclusion was not a sign of new practice, stating that he has never prescribed who can or can’t be in any party’s delegation. 

“I hope it’s not a new precedent that’s been set,” he said, adding “that’s never been our practice to tell other people who should be on their delegation”. 

Protocol issues

Earlier this morning, Martin and Heaton-Harris had a meeting which was described as “very good” by the Tánaiste.

Speaking to reporters in Hillsborough, Martin said that both the Irish and UK Government remained “very focused” on restoring the institutions in Northern Ireland.

brexit The Tánaiste heading to speak with media following his meeting with the Northern Ireland Secretary PA PA

“It’s important for the people of Northern Ireland in the first instance that they have politicians working for them, and that the mandate that they give politicians in the last assembly elections is fulfilled,” Martin said.

Varadkar spoke to President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen yesterday evening on the issues facing Northern Ireland.

He said that “the teams are making a certain degree of progress. They are very keen to have the time and space to continue their work and have asked that there would be confidentiality around that, so that’s obviously something we are going to observe”.

The visit by both Varadkar and Martin comes after what has been described as a ‘breakthrough’ between the UK and the EU, with an agreement being reached between the two parties on a contentious data sharing issue.

Varadkar said that it was a positive step following a year of little to no progress.

“I think it does open the door to further agreement on how we can make the protocol more workable and more acceptable,” he added.

Varadkar is expected to outline the Government’s priority of resolving issues surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol to ensure the restoration of both the Assembly and the Executive.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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