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Coveney: Unionist concerns should be addressed, but NI Protocol here to stay

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Graffiti reading ‘No Irish Sea border’ near Belfast City centre (David Young/PA)

Graffiti reading ‘No Irish Sea border’ near Belfast City centre (David Young/PA)

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Graffiti reading ‘No Irish Sea border’ near Belfast City centre (David Young/PA)

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney has called for a pragmatic and flexible approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol to address the concerns of unionists and businesses.

However, Mr Coveney said there was no scope to scrap the protocol and it was here to stay.

He also expressed concern that Northern Ireland was moving into a "dangerous space" with a rise in polarised and identity politics.

Agreed as part of the UK's Brexit deal with the EU, the purpose of the protocol is to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland by keeping Northern Ireland aligned with European trade rules.

Unionists have registered their anger at the measure, which they claim separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK via the trade border in the Irish Sea. They have called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to invoke Article 16 of the protocol which allows both sides to suspend the deal if serious issues arise.

The EU briefly invoked the clause last month in a row over vaccine supplies, before quickly backtracking.

Anti-protocol graffiti has appeared across Northern Ireland, including at ports, and MLAs and MPs offices have been targeted.

Businesses have also expressed concern with problems around goods travelling from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. A number of businesses have temporarily and permanently stopped shipping goods to the region as a result.

Mr Coveney called for solutions to address the issues caused by the protocol.

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Simon Coveney (Niall Carson/PA)

Simon Coveney (Niall Carson/PA)

Simon Coveney (Niall Carson/PA)

He told the Financial Times that “pragmatism and flexibility within the confines of the protocol actually strengthens the protocol. It doesn’t weaken it".

“We shouldn’t see flexibility as a weakness or a concession. In fact, this is ensuring that we create an acceptance for and a full implementation of the protocol," the Irish Foreign Minister said.

“Our focus has to be to try to listen to businesses and in particular to unionism in Northern Ireland and to try to respond to the concerns that have been outlined in as comprehensive a way as we can but — and I think it’s important to stress this — within the confines of the protocol."

Mr Coveney accepted that the protocol had caused "real frustrations", and signalled the Irish Government would support "modest extensions" to grace periods for the full implementation of the agreement, but ruled out a permanent grace period or scrapping the protocol.

"We know that there are issues in relation to implementation that need to be resolved and we know that there are a series of asks here in terms of pragmatism and flexibility,” he said.

“We need to approach both with a view to trying to get a partnership to move this protocol forward — that can move away from the kind of polarised politics that we’ve seen over the last two weeks, particularly in Northern Ireland linked to the protocol, which very much had moved into the realm of identity politics, which is a dangerous space to move into.”

An EU diplomat told the Financial Times that there were concerns in Brussels that the Irish Government was following "a policy of equidistance towards the EU and the UK on Northern Ireland".

Mr Coveney said the Irish Government remained firmly committed to the EU, but had to be mindful of it's commitment to peace in Northern Ireland alongside "friendly neighbour" the UK.

"We have a responsibility to manage a peace process, relationships on this island and relationships between Britain and Ireland. At any time in history when those relationships have been in poor shape, it’s caused lots of other problems too," the Fine Gael TD said.

“It’s about recognising the tensions that (people In Northern Ireland) live with and the polarisation in the politics there and it’s about ensuring that the protocol can be implemented with goodwill and will be supported in four years' time (when the Assembly votes on it)."

Belfast Telegraph


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