Gridlocked negotiations between Britain and Brussels Post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland should not be delayed beyond February and it is time for the UK to make concessions, said Ireland’s Foreign Secretary.
“We all know we need to bring this discussion and negotiation to an end,” Simon Coveney said in an interview with the Financial Times, citing the UK’s record new chief Brexit negotiator, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, in concluding trade agreements.
“We have elections in Northern Ireland in May. Those elections will really start in earnest from the end of February. So it can not continue for months, “he said.
Truss, who took over the Brexit portfolio this month following the surprise resignation of Lord David Frost, is expected to visit Northern Ireland early next month, but has not yet indicated any change in the UK’s position.
Since Brexit, Northern Ireland has remained within the EU’s internal market for goods because the alternative – a tough customs border on the island – has been ruled out as a threat to the 1998 peace deal that spanned three decades of sectarian conflict known as the Troubles, ended.
However, this meant implementing customs controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland instead. This is set out in the part of the Brexit agreement known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is being renegotiated.
London has withdrawn concessions from Brussels that EU EU Brexit negotiator Maros Sefcovic says will halve customs controls and reduce health controls on British products destined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 receive medicine from Britain. But London wants more.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has threatened to pull his Democratic Unionist party out of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing administration in January, unless the Irish Sea’s customs border is scrapped. He argues that the protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK.
The Brexit talks moved between London and Brussels for weeks without progress, before being stopped 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 months of January and February are really the timeline in which we work, to try to bring these discussions to an end. And there is no reason why this should not happen. Because there is nothing new on the table here. ”
Truss reiterated Britain’s readiness to suspend parts of the protocol under Article 16 – a move that, according to Coveney, would “burn back” and question the UK’s entire post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU.
At one point, Truss has already reiterated the latest British position that he does not want the European Court of Justice to be the “final arbitrator of disputes”. This form of words will keep it at an arm’s length of the protocol, while still allowing it to adjudicate on issues of EU law.
The EU insists that because Northern Ireland is in the internal market for goods, the UK should eventually accept oversight by the ECJ.
“I do not see how the EU can agree to remove a role for the ECJ in interpreting EU rules and regulations,” Coveney said.
Ireland is not directly involved in EU-UK negotiations, but geographical, historical and trade ties put it on the Brexit front line. Both countries are also close allies of the US and Coveney said he hopes President Joe Biden will visit Ireland in 2022.
Regarding ties with London, he said: “I see my role as an open-minded friend. . . “I am not going to tell the British government what they want to hear,” he said. “I think my role should be to explore realistic potential solutions.”
One such non-Brexit issue is the UK’s controversial plan to amnesty for violent crimes in the Troubles era, with legislation expected to be introduced in early January.
Coveney said such a move would represent for the first time since the Good Friday deal that one side had taken a unilateral step over “something as important as legacy”.
As with the protocol, Ireland has “tried to return to a partnership approach”, he added.
“For the British government to decide to continue on the basis of a policy that no one in Northern Ireland supports. . . and that the Irish government was very clear, both privately and publicly, that we could not support it, would be a big mistake, ”Coveney said.