Unilateral move by UK on protocol could undermine peace process, Coveney warns

Ireland’s foreign minister criticised ‘sabre rattling’ and ‘grandstanding’ in London as he insisted dialogue was the way to resolve the impasse.

15 May 2022

Ripping up the Northern Ireland Protocol could undermine the peace process and send headlines around the world that the UK Government breaks laws, Ireland’s foreign minister has warned.

Simon Coveney said there is a need to address unionist concerns about post-Brexit trading arrangements that have created economic barriers in the Irish Sea, but he highlighted that a majority of voters in Northern Ireland backed the protocol.

Commenting on the prospect of the UK introducing domestic laws to override the protocol, Mr Coveney warned the Government against “legislating unilaterally for the concerns of one community in Northern Ireland”.

He said there would be a “consequence” if the UK walked away from its protocol commitments, but he insisted the EU was not about issuing threats about potential trade wars.

He criticised what he described as “sabre rattling” in London and expressed concern that senior figures in the UK Government were laying the groundwork to break international law.

Mr Coveney insisted the way to deal with the problems around the protocol was continued dialogue between the EU and UK.

He told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “What I see at the moment is a British Government making statements and briefing against the EU, and creating a lot of tension in my country, your closest neighbour, and also potentially being on the verge of making a decision that could fundamentally undermine the functioning of the institutions of the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain are subject to checks under the protocol (Liam McBurney/PA)

“Let’s not forget, this is not only about unionism, of course it needs to be partly about unionism, but a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit and would vote against Brexit again in the morning if it was put to them.

“A majority of people in Northern Ireland are in favour of the protocol because they see that it does a reasonable job to manage the disruption of Brexit in the Irish circumstances.

“There is a minority, a large minority within unionism, who are unhappy with the protocol.

“There are solutions that we can put in place that can ease that concern and that’s what we need to focus on doing together, as opposed to the British Government acting on its own, illegally in a way that doesn’t reflect majority opinion in Northern Ireland and perhaps, most importantly, sends a message to the world that this British Government when it suits them will set aside international law.

“What’s happening at the moment has forced Ireland into taking a much more strident position and responding honestly to the unhelpful briefings that we’re getting from very, very senior levels within the British Government this week, which seems to be laying the groundwork for a decision which, I believe, could be deeply harmful for the relationship between Britain and Ireland, if we don’t see sense in the next few days.”

Mr Coveney said there was a “landing zone” around a potential compromise arrangement that would differentiate between goods from Great Britain destined for use in Northern Ireland and those bound for onward transport to the EU single market.

“Some of what’s been said this week by various members of the British Cabinet is unhelpful in terms of helping us to get there,” he said.

“But there is an opportunity, I hope, in the next few days to get this dialogue back on track and to avoid the creation of a lot of unnecessary tension by publishing unilateral legislation that would send headlines around the world that the United Kingdom is deliberately breaking international law and creating huge tension with their closest neighbours, and potentially undermining a peace process by doing that.”

The foreign affairs minister said the conflict in Ukraine made it more important for the EU and UK to work together.

Many loyalists oppose the Northern Ireland Protocol (Peter Morrison/PA)

“The EU hasn’t threatened anything, not a trade war and not anything else,” he said.

“What the EU wants is partnership so that we can work together to resolve the issues that remain in relation to the protocol, which, of course, was designed to try to manage the disruption of Brexit on the island of Ireland.

“So, the last thing the EU wants, the last thing that Ireland wants, is tension with the UK, particularly at the moment given what’s happening in Ukraine, Russian aggression, and the need to work together on an international stage.

“Unfortunately, it has been the briefings that have come from the British Government this week that has raised a real red flag in Dublin and in Brussels because the British Government is now threatening to break international law to break a treaty that they signed with the EU, and that they designed with the EU, and ratified with a huge majority in the House of Commons, and, in doing so, potentially creating huge problems on the island of Ireland.”

Mr Coveney said “grandstanding” at Westminster was not how the Northern Ireland Protocol issues would be resolved.

“Ireland is also frustrated,” he said.

“We are dealing with the consequences now of a decision by the British people on our own country that’s cost us hundreds of millions of euros, that is risking the peace process and its institutions on the island of Ireland. So you know, when we focus on frustrations, we need to think beyond Westminster.

“There’s no way the EU can compromise if the UK is threatening unilateral action to pass domestic legislation to set aside international obligations under an international treaty that, don’t forget, the UK was the primary designer of along with the EU.

“At a time when the world needs the Western world to be united, to be acting in concert to solve problems together, this is a problem we need to solve together.

“The last thing Ireland wants, the last thing the EU needs, is tension with a country the size and the influence of the United Kingdom.

“So, let’s work together through the summer get these issues resolved, get the institutions back up and running in Northern Ireland.”

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