Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has accused the UK Government of acting in bad faith over the NI Protocol.
In a piece for The Guardian, the Fine Gael politician said a minority oppose the Protocol and warned that breaching international law by way of unilateral action would only serve to weaken the union between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Mr Varadkar spoke of meeting Boris Johnson in October 2019 and left with the view they were in harmony over the need for democratic consent: they both agreed that only the Northern Ireland assembly should be allowed to revoke any solution that they agreed.
Immediately following the meeting, they both spoke publicly about having reached a “pathway towards an agreement”.
This pathway, he wrote in The Guardian, led ultimately to the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, a vital component in the “oven-ready” Brexit deal that the prime minister used to secure his 80-seat majority in the general election that followed.
Mr Varadkar believes the protocol is working and there is no hard border between Ireland’s north and south. The EU single market is protected, as is the Republic of Ireland’s place in it.
Northern Ireland is outperforming the rest of the UK economically, and north-south trade on the island of Ireland has increased, he said.
He claimed the protocol was even beginning to gain acceptance – albeit without enthusiasm – from some unionist politicians.
And said it is broadly supported by Northern Ireland’s business community, which has access to the British market, as well as the European Union and its 450 million consumers.
However, Mr Varadkar accused the UK government of “changing tack” and threatening to unilaterally suspend parts of the protocol.
The uncertainty about whether the protocol will survive and in what form is now the major concern of Northern Ireland’s businesses, and the country is losing out on investment opportunities as a result, he added.
The Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment said a clear majority of members in the newly elected Northern Ireland assembly and four of the five political parties are in favour of retaining the protocol, either as it stands or in a modified form.
“They may want improvements, changes, the removal of some barriers or some of the checks, but they do not want it scrapped or overridden, and oppose any unilateral action by London,” he explained.
“The MLAs who want the protocol to be scrapped are in a minority.
“Many members of the unionist community have concerns about the protocol that cannot be dismissed.
“There are issues regarding the transit of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland that are destined for the province. I can understand these concerns. Nobody wants checks or controls on trade within their own country, even if it was an inevitable and forewarned consequence of the Brexit that many of them supported.”
Mr Varadkar accepted the protocol can be improved and modified, pointing to flexibility demonstrated by the EU through changes with regard to medicines, and tolerance of the fact that some checks and controls required by the protocol have not been fully implemented.
“But negotiating with a partner that is willing to break agreements and change its mind on what it wants is not easy. The EU’s flexibility and good faith have not been reciprocated by the UK government. This is breeding mistrust in EU capitals.
“The fact that the UK government has talked openly about breaching international law is a matter of concern and contrasts with the leadership that it has shown for Ukraine, supporting the country against Russia’s invasion, which has breached international law in a very serious way,” he said.
“Ireland has always been open to other solutions, including a customs union, a closer relationship with the single market, a European free trade area and the backstop.
“That would have eliminated the need for checks between Northern Ireland and Britain. Perhaps in the future, Britain may reconsider these options, but I know they are not options at the moment.
“Any British government that claims to be ‘pro-union’ and any British prime minister who is also the minister for the union must understand the consequences of imposing a policy on Northern Ireland that is not supported by the majority of the people there.
“They must recognise that this will further reduce support for the union, in my view. Brexit weakened middle-ground support for the union in Northern Ireland. Unilateral action on the protocol will weaken it even more,” Mr Varadkar added.