The Taoiseach has called for “symbols” to be taken out of the debate over the Northern Ireland Protocol as he urged business to communicate its “bread and butter” benefits.
Micheal Martin said recent rioting in parts of the region, which was partly triggered by loyalist opposition to the Protocol and a lack of prosecutions following the Bobby Storey funeral, was “deeply concerning”.
But he said he was hopeful that talks between the EU and UK over resolving problems with the protocol would be successful.
Speaking to business leaders, the Taoiseach said: “It is essential that calm, measured and positive leadership be exercised at every level for all the people in NI.
“There are democratic, there are legal means available to address everyone’s concerns whether they relate to policing in NI, to Brexit or any other issues.
“There is no excuse for violence or illegality. The only way forward is through dialogue and working within the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.”
He told the event, organised by the NI Chamber of Commerce, that business could play an important role in communication about the protocol. It has avoided a hard border on the island of Ireland by keeping NI in the single market for goods.
“There may be hesitancy to get embroiled in broader political debate, but I think the most important message is to highlight the practical benefits of north-south co-operation.
“The business community needs to keep putting pressure on to put the economy at the centre of political debate.
“I understand all these sensitivities around the protocol but there are potential opportunities around it all.
“Access to a market of 450 million people is valuable. Of course you have to maintain your access to the UK market but there’s an opportunity there.”
He added: “We need to share those insights to the broader population, that this is bread and butter, this is jobs, and that we should get a significant focus on that.
“That is about public awareness, public debate. Let’s try and move it away from symbols and some of the political arguments which in my view don’t stack up.
“I don’t believe the protocol affects the constitutional status of NI, it explicitly says it doesn’t, and it doesn’t.”
Mr Martin said Northern Ireland’s economic position under the protocol, with access to both the EU and UK markets, brought advantages.
He added: “I would be very willing to help as Taoiseach in spelling those out. I do think there is an opportunity in terms of foreign direct investment. An aggressive marketing campaign about the attractions which NI now offers across a number of fronts is one that would bear fruit in my view.”
He said the Irish government recognised the sensitivities around the Protocol, which has been regarded by unionists as eroding their sense of British identity by imposing a border in the Irish Sea.
“The Irish government has always been clear that we want the protocol to be implemented sensitively in a way that impacts as little as possible on communities in NI.”
Mr Martin said that a meeting last week between UK negotiator Lord Frost and his EU counterpart, European Commission president Maros Sefcovic, had been “good”. “There should be intensified contacts at all levels in coming weeks.”
But he acknowledged the protocol, which has introduced checks on goods coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland - as the region remains in the EU single market for goods following Brexit - has presented a burden on some businesses.
“The impact of Brexit is continuing and it’s been a shock to many people all over the island. Our customs declarations as a result of Brexit for goods going through Dublin Port have gone from two million per annum to 20 million per annum.
“Brexit has caused a lot of paperwork everywhere...
“What we should focus on is how we minimise that, can we create arrangements in terms of bespoke solutions for trusted traders.”
Mr Martin said “trust” and working together would be key in the success of talks.
“My feeling is that David Frost and Maros Sefcovic have started this process which could yield some outcomes,” he added.
“It may take a bit of time but I do agree that we need to have very practical solutions and we need to be creative about it and understand that on one level, the threat to the single market isn’t as some might suggest it is in terms of goods going from UK and NI and on the other hand there are real issues as to how trade is conducted.
“The UK left the EU but I think there is scope in that talks process to iron out some of these issues and bureaucracy attached to all of this and we’re going to have to continue to work on that.”
Mr Martin also acknowledged that the reopening process following lockdown would be different on either side of the border, with NI ahead of the Republic because of the faster rate of its vaccination scheme.
“I don’t see perfect alignment over the next couple of weeks and the north may be ahead of us because of the UK policy on first doses, and the interval between doses and all of that, and a different authorisation process. I think you gained about four weeks on the authorisation process.”