‘Window of opportunity’ to resolve post-Brexit trading issues, says NI First Minister

Northern Ireland’s First Minister said there is a window of opportunity to resolve post-Brexit trading issues, adding that the Irish Government has a role in influencing the EU.

Paul Givan said the UK Government recognises the “political, societal and economic harm” caused by Northern Ireland Protocol.

He also hit out at Tanaiste Leo Varadkar, who was a key figure in the Brexit negotiations, after he brought a copy of a newspaper to a European Council meeting in Brussels to highlight his concerns over the Irish border issue.

The incident happened in 2018 and the copy of the Irish Times had featured a story on its front page about an IRA bombing of a Border customs post in 1972 that left nine people dead.

The NI Protocol has been roundly rejected by Unionists.

Mr Givan claimed the incident caused “huge damage” within the Unionist community.

The DUP Assembly member made the comments following a meeting of the North South Ministerial Council (NSMC) on Friday.

“What we have is a window of opportunity with the UK Government recognising the political, societal and economic harm that has been caused by that protocol,” Mr Givan added.

“The European Union has now suspended its litigation and there’s recognition that the protocol is causing harm, that there needs to be constructive engagement between the UK Government and the European Union.

“Obviously the Irish Government have a very important role in influencing how the European Union conducts its approach to addressing those issues.

“Nobody should be under any illusion as to the implications that the protocol has had, the manner in which it was foisted upon the Unionist community and the way in which there was engagement for the European Union, where we had photographs of border posts being bombed in the 1970s in order to get the European Union on side when it came to this protocol.

“That caused huge damage within the Unionist community, by the way in which the Irish Government at that time engaged in the process.

“We want to see a new relationship developed after the outworkings of the UK Government and European Union engagement as a result of this command paper being published.

“We share this island. It’s in our interests for those relationships to work and to be good.”

In a joint press conference, Mr Varadkar said that any barriers, checks or controls that exist are a consequence of Brexit.

The protocol, part of the Brexit divorce deal agreed by the UK and Brussels, effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods.

This means checks on goods being sent from Great Britain into the single market – and in some cases could result in prohibitions on certain products that do not comply with EU rules.

Mr Varadkar said the protocol is an honouring of a commitment made by the UK Government to Irish people living in Northern Ireland and the Republic, that Brexit would not result in a hard border on the island.

“That is how and why the protocol came about, a decision by the British people to leave the European Union, and a subsequent commitment by the British Government that would not result in a hard border on our island,” Mr Varadkar added.

“Nobody in the Irish Government or the previous Irish Government has ever wanted any barriers to trade, north, south, east, west or between Britain and Northern Ireland.

“Any barriers that exist, checks or controls, are a consequence of Brexit.

“We will work constructively with the Northern Ireland Executive, with the UK Government and with the European Union, to find any way that we can to minimise any negative impacts that the protocol may have on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and to minimise any negative impact they have on the economy in Northern Ireland.

“I think there’s a huge potential for increased exports from Northern Ireland, not just to Great Britain, but also to the European Union as a consequence of the protocol.

“I hope when we get past this current phase in these next few months, it’ll be possible for us to focus on that.”

Irish premier Micheal Martin also said Brexit issues can be ironed out and resolved if the “political will” exists.

He said the British Government and the European Union Commission are working together to deal with the issues.

“The British Government has issued a command paper, the EU have responded, the EU has extended the grace periods,” the Fianna Fail leader added.

“There has been a lot of work done over the last number of months.

“If the political will exists, I do believe that within the framework of the Withdrawal Agreement that the potential exists there to iron out and to resolve issues that have arisen in terms of the smooth implementation of the protocol and the resolution of those issues.

“Again, there’s obviously more work to be done there, but there is engagement between the UK Government and European Union Commission.

“The Irish Government stands ready to be helpful and has engaged with the commission on these issues and with the UK Government on these issues.”

Northern Ireland deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said the economic challenges are a direct result of Brexit.

“Those that delivered the hardest possible Brexit have to shoulder some of the responsibility for where we are,” she added.

“That being said, I think that within the framework of the Withdrawal Agreement, we have the Joint Committee, that is the forum in which we can iron out some of the issues that need to be resolved.”