Ireland’s deputy premier warns against political games as protocol deal looms

Ireland’s deputy premier has warned against playing politics with the future of Northern Ireland as he expressed hope a deal can be reached on the post-Brexit trading protocol.

Micheal Martin said he would be hopeful the UK and EU could make progress toward sealing a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol this week but said he could not be certain that would happen.

He also insisted the pace of the negotiations had not slowed in recent days.

The Tanaiste, who is in Brussels for the EU Foreign Affairs Council, was commenting as Prime Minister Rishi Sunak came under pressure from Tory backbenchers not to concede too much ground to the EU.

General views of Belfast Harbour
The protocol requires checks on goods arriving into Northern Ireland from Great Britain (Liam McBurney/PA)

“I think what’s very important is that everybody now from here on think about the people of Northern Ireland,” said Mr Martin.

“Not power play, not politics elsewhere, I think the people of Northern Ireland have had enough of that, of people playing politics with their future. And, in my view, my only concern is that the people of Northern Ireland voted (in last May’s Assembly election), they want their institutions (at Stormont) restored.

“People had legitimate concerns around the operation of the protocol.

“There’s been a very sincere and substantial attempt to resolve those concerns by the UK negotiating team with the EU negotiating team.

“I think we should allow that to come to realisation and fruition in the coming while and we should then focus on the needs of the people.”

Mr Martin would not be drawn on specifics when asked for his response to calls from Eurosceptic Tory MPs for the UK government to proceed with stalled legislation that would empower ministers to unilaterally scrap the protocol.

However, Mr Martin made clear that any negotiated outcome between the EU and UK would “transcend” anything else.

Former prime minister Boris Johnson has also warned the UK government against dropping the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. Mr Sunak has paused progress on the Bill pending the outcome of the negotiations with the EU.

Mr Martin said the approach of the UK and EU was to find “joint solutions” through a negotiated settlement.

“The outcome of such negotiations then transcends anything else,” he said.

“I’m not getting into specifics, I’m just saying there’s clear principles here in terms of what the purpose and objective of these talks has been from the outset, which is to have a negotiated resolution of the issues that have been legitimately raised in respect of the operation of the protocol.”

Tanaiste Micheal Martin leaves a Belfast hotel after holding meeting with Stormont parties earlier this month (Brian Lawless/PA)

Mr Martin, who met European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic on Sunday night to discuss the state of play, said the negotiations have been “very challenging” for both sides.

“It’s clear to me that very, very good progress has been made and also that the nature of engagement has been a genuine one and trust has built up,” he added.

Mr Martin was asked about the issue of democratic consent and whether Brussels would countenance a deal that gave politicians in Northern Ireland more of a say in shaping the EU laws that apply in the region under the protocol.

He said he was very aware of the position of the Stormont parties on the issue.

“People want to make sure that this negotiated resolution between the EU and UK sustains into the future and so, within the joint committees there are mechanisms there that can be developed to facilitate inputs, to make sure that this agreement sustains into the future, and those concerns have been heard by all concerned.

“And up to quite recently I’ve met with all the parties, so I have a very good idea of what people are seeking.

“I think the negotiators, the UK and the EU teams, are also very conscious of that. And again, if the will is there, and the will has been there, issues can get resolved.”