The Dublin Government must persuade the EU to “fix” the North’s Brexit crux and undo harm done by its use of 1972 border bombing photographs to help get special trade status for Northern Ireland.
That was the strong message from Northern Ireland First Minister, Paul Givan, at the end of a meeting between the Belfast and Dublin Governments. He renewed Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) allegations that Tánaiste Leo Varadkar used newspaper clippings of a 1972 IRA customs post bombing at Newry, which killed nine people, to win Dublin arguments about the absolute need to avoid an Irish border after Brexit.
As Taoiseach, in October 2018, Mr Varadkar showed the newspaper cutting at a summit of EU counterparts to warn of the lethal risks from the return of a north-south border. The EU leaders fully backed an arrangement for no Irish border, but did involve checks on exports into the North from Britain, under the disputed Northern Ireland Protocol.
Mr Givan agreed with Taoiseach Micheál Martin that there is now “a window of opportunity” to resolve the issues raised by the protocol. But the DUP assembly member stressed that the Irish Government has an important role in influencing the EU in this.
Mr Givan said the UK Government recognised the Protocol had caused social and economic harm in the North. He noted the EU has now suspended legal action against London offering a chance for real negotiations.
"Obviously the Irish Government have a very important role in influencing how the European Union conducts its approach to addressing those issues,” Mr Givan said.
“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,” Mr Givan added.
The DUP politician said the episode caused huge damage within the unionist community but there was an opportunity for a new Dublin-Belfast relationship if the problems could be resolved. "We share this island. It's in our interests for those relationships to work and to be good," the First Minister added.
Mr Martin said Brexit issues can be resolved if the "political will" exists. He described the meeting of the North South Ministerial Council meeting as "good, relaxed, engaged and pragmatic". He said both governments could contribute to a Brexit settlement.
"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,” Mr Martin said.
He said Dublin was prepared to help influence the EU-UK talks. "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," the Taoiseach added.
The North’s Deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill, said she raised the issue of Brexit “grace periods”, delaying disputed product checks, towards the end of the ministerial meeting. Ms O'Neill added that the problems were a direct result of Brexit.
"Those that delivered the hardest possible Brexit have to shoulder some of the responsibility for where we are," the Sinn Féin Deputy leader added. Ms O’Neill said some of the administrative problems arising from the Protocol were related to the lateness of arriving at a deal but she also struck a more hopeful note that the EU-UK talks can succeed.
"I think that it's important that we work constructively where we can to try to resolve the issues that need to be resolved and give wider society that stability which they crave as we go forward," Ms O’Neill said.