BELFAST — Reaching a U.K.-EU agreement on making the Brexit deal’s trade protocol for Northern Ireland work might not be enough to revive the region’s cross-community government, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar warned Thursday.
After a daylong diplomatic push north of the border, Varadkar — the figure many unionists blame for the post-Brexit protocol that requires EU checks on arriving British goods — stressed that the enforcement measures at Northern Ireland ports had been “too strict and too rigid” and would need to be softened.
Varadkar said he hoped that ongoing efforts between U.K. and EU negotiators would produce an accord ending their two-year standoff over enforcement of the protocol, a key plank of the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement that kept Northern Ireland subject to EU goods rules.
But after meeting Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson, Varadkar cautioned that such a U.K.-EU settlement might fail to persuade Donaldson to revive the Northern Ireland Assembly and its cross-community executive at Stormont. Such power-sharing was the central aim of Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord but requires participation by the DUP, the largest unionist party.
Defusing London-Brussels tensions would “be of value in its own right,” Varadkar said after separately discussing the Belfast impasse with leaders of all five parties from Northern Ireland’s failed government. Their coalition started unraveling in February when the DUP’s first minister resigned, and was shut down in October.
“Obviously our desire is that we should first have an agreement on the protocol, then unlock the restoration of the assembly and the executive,” Varadkar said. “It’s not a given that one follows the other.”
Donaldson demonstrated why in his own departing remarks, voicing opposition to a new U.K. move to put enforcement of post-Brexit checks on a more coherent long-term footing.
Shortly before Varadkar and Donaldson met, the U.K. government published a statutory instrument empowering the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to commission the construction of permanent “sea border” posts at the ports of Belfast and Larne and to hire more specialist staff. Ironically, the move was made possible by the collapse of power-sharing — because the DUP, previously in charge of Stormont’s department of agriculture, had used that position to block such construction and recruitment.
“If bringing forward proposals for border control posts is about implementing the protocol, we are utterly opposed to that,” Donaldson said.
Yet Donaldson appeared to concede that unionists would tolerate such border control ports if they could be dedicated solely to screening goods bound for the Republic of Ireland.
About 85 percent of goods currently landed in Belfast and Larne don’t cross the EU land border. It has been kept barrier-free thanks to the protocol, an outcome supported by the Irish government and Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland.
“We will look at what measures are required in the event of an agreement being reached between the United Kingdom and the European Union,” Donaldson said. “But on trade within the United Kingdom, there should be no border controls.”
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