By Michael McHugh, David Young and David Hughes, PA
The Northern Ireland Protocol is not going to be scrapped, the Irish Government has said.
Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster says the measure designed to keep the Irish land border open should be replaced, but Dublin is focused on easing problems with the post-Brexit trade deal which have caused disruption at Irish Sea ports.
Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said: “We need to be truthful with everybody – the protocol is not going to be scrapped.”
He said ministers want to be helpful and flexibilities are possible but the problems are a consequence of the UK’s Brexit negotiating stance.
Mr Coveney told the BBC’s Radio Ulster: “There is not going to be very dramatic change.”
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 campaign, instead blaming disgruntled individuals and small groups.
DUP MP Sammy Wilson says it's clear promises have been broken and is calling for a debate on issues of fundamental importance.
.@eastantrimmp "...the promises made to the people of Northern Ireland, that as a result of the Northern Ireland Protocol, their citizenship of the UK would not be diminished, and their access to the GB market would not be disrupted, has been totally discredited." pic.twitter.com/lIxFiwmZnE— DUP (@duponline) February 4, 2021
UK Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic held a virtual meeting with Mrs Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill on Wednesday evening, and further discussions are to take place next week between the UK and the EU.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein president Mary-Lou McDonald said teething problems need to be ironed out, telling BBC Radio 4: “We do not need melodrama.”
Mr Coveney advocated a pragmatic approach to solving problems around the protocol and recognised there were genuine issues.
He said: “We want the protocol to function in a way that works for everyone, north and south, on the island of Ireland.”
Mr Coveney said the protocol is a result of Brexit and followed two years of negotiation, adding that options were “narrowed significantly” in mitigating the impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland.
He said: “The EU wanted to share a single market and customs union and that was turned down.”
Boris Johnson has warned he is ready to override elements of the Brexit divorce settlement relating to Northern Ireland to prevent a trade barrier developing in the Irish Sea.
John, I recognise implementation problems with Protocol & we’re working to address this with UKGov & EU. But I have a responsibility to be honest about about what solutions are possible. The Protocol is UK/EU agreed to manage #Brexit disruption, there’s no credible alternative.— Simon Coveney (@simoncoveney) February 4, 2021
In the Commons, the DUP MP Ian Paisley told the Prime Minister that the protocol has “betrayed” his constituents, making them “feel like foreigners in our country”.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic is due to travel to the UK for talks next week amid a deepening row between London and Brussels.
It comes amid growing concern that measures in the Withdrawal Agreement intended to keep open the land border with the Republic are disrupting trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The UK has requested an extension of grace periods of light touch regulation to allow the smooth flow of some trade.
European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said: “The grace periods were always meant to be of a temporary nature and subject to strict conditions for their application.
“This was decided, of course, also in the context of discussions with the United Kingdom at the time.”
A fraught situation was further exacerbated last week when the Commission briefly used Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to close the border to exports of the coronavirus vaccine from the Republic.
Mr Coveney said it is unrealistic to expect the protocol to be scrapped.
Mrs Foster said: “He is completely tone deaf to the concerns of unionism and he claimed to support the Belfast Agreement but the balance in the Belfast Agreement does not seem to matter.
“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.”
She told Radio Ulster: “We were told for years that majoritarianism did not work in Northern Ireland but it appears that majoritarianism is back and if we do not like it we just have to suck it up.”
She said the protocol is “fundamentally flawed” and that extending grace periods on trade represents sticking-plaster solutions.
“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.”
Ms McDonald said some negative consequences of Brexit could not be mitigated.
She added: “The first thing that needs to happen now is we need cool heads, we need calm, mature leadership, those teething problems that do exist need to be identified and need to be ironed out.
“Those who championed Brexit and are crying salty tears now because of the consequences of Brexit need to accept that those are consequences of their decisions, their actions, and to not point the finger at others.”
Ms O’Neill told RTE they needed to find pragmatic and constructive solutions to the protocol.
The DUP needed to dial down its rhetoric and avoid “whipping up tensions”, she added.
“I just think we need to give it some time.
“And that’s where our whole efforts need to be focused, as opposed to whipping up tensions which we’ve seen over the course of recent days.”