Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has warned the UK Government that unilateral action on the Northern Ireland Protocol could undermine the peace process.
Mr Coveney said there was a need to address unionist concerns about the operation of the post-Brexit trading arrangements, but he highlighted that a majority of voters in Northern Ireland backed pro-protocol parties.
He said the way to deal with the problems around the protocol was continued dialogue between the EU and UK, as he warned that any move by London to walk away from the arrangements would send headlines around the world that Britain is prepared to break international law.
“What I see at the moment is a British government making statements and briefing against the EU, and creating a lot of tension in my country, your closest neighbour, and also potentially being on the verge of making a decision that could fundamentally undermine the functioning of the institutions of the peace process in Northern Ireland,” he told Sky News.
“Let’s not forget, this is not only about unionism, of course it needs to be partly about unionism, but a majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit and would vote against Brexit again in the morning it was put to them.
“A majority of people in Northern Ireland are in favour of the protocol because they see that it does a reasonable job to manage the disruption of Brexit in the Irish circumstances.
“There is a minority, a large minority within unionism, who are unhappy with the protocol. There are solutions that we can put in place that can ease that concern and that’s what we need to focus on doing together,” he said.
“What’s happening at the moment has forced Ireland into taking a much more strident position and responding honestly to the unhelpful briefings that we’re getting from very, very senior levels within the British government this week, which seems to be laying the groundwork for a decision which, I believe, could be deeply harmful for the relationship between Britain and Ireland, if we don’t see sense in the next few days.”
Mr Coveney said there would be a “consequence” if the UK moved to override the protocol but he insisted the EU was not about issuing threats.
“The EU isn’t threatening anything,” he said. “I think for us to focus on how the EU would respond to the British government deliberately breaching international law is probably where we shouldn’t be right now.
“Instead, we need to be trying to avoid that situation. But I think everybody understands if the British government decides to set aside international law to create significant uncertainty on the island of Ireland in terms of single market membership, and a whole range of other things, … of course there’s a consequence, the EU is forced to respond, but that is not where we want to be.
“Where we want to be is good neighbours, good friends and solving problems together. I would encourage the influencers within the British government to ensure that that’s the course that they decide to take.”
Mr Coveney added: “There is an impression often across the United Kingdom that Northern Ireland is deeply unhappy with the protocol and that a majority of people want it changed – that is simply not true. The majority of people in Northern Ireland have just voted for candidates that actually are in favour of the protocol because of how it manages the disruption of Brexit.
“There is a landing zone and a solution that we can get to here, if there is real partnership in terms of trying to solve these problems.
“Some of what’s been said this week by various members of the British cabinet is unhelpful in terms of helping us to get there.
“But there is an opportunity, I hope, in the next few days to get this dialogue back on track and to avoid the creation of a lot of unnecessary tension by publishing unilateral legislation that would send headlines around the world that the United Kingdom is deliberately breaking international law and creating huge tension with their closest neighbours, and potentially undermining a peace process by doing that.”
The Irish minister said the conflict in Ukraine made it more important for the EU and UK to work together.
“We have huge challenges to overcome together,” he said.
“The EU hasn’t threatened anything, not a trade war and not anything else.
“What the EU wants is partnership so that we can work together to resolve the issues that remain in relation to the protocol, which, of course, was designed to try to manage the disruption of Brexit on the island of Ireland.
“So, the last thing the EU wants, the last thing that Ireland wants, is tension with the UK, particularly at the moment given what’s happening in Ukraine, Russian aggression, and the need to work together on an international stage.
“Unfortunately, it has been the briefings that have come from the British government this week that has raised a real red flag in Dublin and in Brussels because the British government is now threatening to break international law to break a treaty that they signed with the EU, and that they designed with the EU, and ratified with a huge majority in the House of Commons, and, in doing so, potentially creating huge problems on the island of Ireland.”
Simon Coveney said “sabre rattling” and “grandstanding” at Westminster was not how the Northern Ireland Protocol issues would be resolved.
“At a time when the world needs the western world to be united, to be acting in concert to solve problems together. This is a problem we need to solve together. The last thing Ireland wants, the last thing the EU needs, is tension with a country the size and the influence of the United Kingdom.
“So, let’s work together through the summer get these issues resolved, get the institutions back up and running in Northern Ireland.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to travel to Belfast on Monday for crisis talks with the political parties amid continuing political deadlock over the protocol.