Gridlocked negotiations between Britain and Brussels over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland should not drag on past February and it is time for the UK to make concessions, Ireland’s foreign minister has said.
“We all know that we need to bring this discussion and negotiation to an end,” Simon Coveney told the Financial Times in an interview, highlighting the record of the UK’s new chief Brexit negotiator, foreign secretary Liz Truss, in concluding trade deals.
“We have elections in Northern Ireland in May. Those elections will begin in earnest really from the end of February. So this can’t drift on for months,” he said.
Truss, who took over the Brexit portfolio this month after the surprise resignation of Lord David Frost, is expected to visit Northern Ireland early next month but has signalled no change in the UK’s stance yet.
Since Brexit, Northern Ireland has remained within the EU’s single market for goods because the alternative — a hard customs border on the island — was ruled out as a threat to the 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of sectarian conflict known as the Troubles.
However, that meant implementing customs checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland instead. These were set out in the part of the Brexit agreement known as the Northern Ireland protocol, which is being renegotiated.
London has extracted concessions from Brussels that the EU’s Brexit negotiator, Maros Sefcovic, says would halve customs checks and slash health checks on British products destined for Northern Ireland by 80 per cent. The EU has also changed its law to ensure that the UK region can still continue to receive medicines from Britain. But London wants more.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has threatened to pull his Democratic Unionist party out of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive in January unless the Irish Sea customs border is scrapped. He argues that the protocol is undermining Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK.
The Brexit talks have shuttled between London and Brussels for weeks without progress, before being put on hold over Christmas. If they do not conclude by February, “the election in Northern Ireland will become a referendum on the protocol”, Coveney said.
“I think the month of January and February really is the timeline that we’re working in, to try to bring these discussions to a close. And there’s no reason why that shouldn’t happen. Because there’s nothing new on the table here.”
Truss has repeated Britain’s readiness to suspend parts of the protocol under Article 16 — a move that Coveney says would “backfire” and call into question the UK’s entire post-Brexit trade deal with the EU.
On one sticking point, Truss has already repeated the latest UK position that it does not want the European Court of Justice to be the “final arbiter of disputes”. That form of words would keep it at arm’s length from the protocol while still allowing it to adjudicate on issues of EU law.
The EU insists that because Northern Ireland is in the single market for goods the UK must accept ultimate oversight by the ECJ.
“I don’t see how the EU can agree to removing a role for the ECJ in interpreting EU rules and regulations,” Coveney said.
Ireland is not involved directly in negotiations between the EU and UK, but geographical, historical and trade ties put it in the Brexit front line. Both countries are also close allies of the US and Coveney said he hoped President Joe Biden would visit Ireland in 2022.
Regarding links with London, he said: “I see my role as a candid friend . . . I’m not going to tell the British government what they want to hear,” he said. “I think my role has got to be to explore realistic potential solutions.”
One such non-Brexit issue is the UK’s controversial plan to extend an amnesty for violent Troubles-era crimes, with legislation expected to be brought in in early January.
Coveney said such a move would represent the first time since the Good Friday Agreement that one side had made a unilateral move on “something as important as legacy”.
As with the protocol, Ireland was “trying to get back to a partnership approach”, he added.
“For the British government to decide to move ahead on the basis of a policy that nobody supports in Northern Ireland . . . and that the Irish government has been very clear, both privately and publicly, that we cannot support, would be a big mistake,” Coveney said.