Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said mistakes were made on all sides in the handling of Brexit, but vowed to be “flexible and reasonable” when attempting to solve issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol.
He conceded that the post-Brexit protocol is “too strict” and said he understands unionist concerns that the treaty has made them feel less British.
In response, DUP Leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said a “fundamental change of attitude” is needed in UK-EU negotiations on the protocol to reach a long-standing solution.
Mr Varadkar, who became Taoiseach for a second time in December, has become deeply unpopular within some sections of unionism and loyalism who claim he was an instrumental figure in the creation of the contentious protocol.
His name and image have recently appeared in threatening graffiti and posters in loyalist areas of Northern Ireland.
Despite this, he has insisted he is looking forward to travelling to the region early this year.
Asked about the negative perception of him within unionism, the Taoiseach said: “I’m sure we’ve all made mistakes in the handling of Brexit.
“There was no road map, no manual, it wasn’t something that we expected would happen and we’ve all done our best to deal with it.”
“Again, I look forward to travelling to Northern Ireland early in the new year, meeting with all the parties and reaching out to all parties and all communities in an effort to find a solution,” he said during a pre-Christmas media briefing.
He added: “One thing I have said in the past is that, when we designed the protocol, when it was originally negotiated, perhaps it was a little bit too strict.
“And we’ve seen that the protocol has worked without it being fully enforced.
“And that’s why I think there is room for flexibility and room for changes and we’re open to that and up for that, and I know from speaking to (European Commission) President (Ursula) von der Leyen and (EC vice president) Maros Sefcovic, that’s their position too.
“So, we are willing to show flexibility and to make compromises. We do want there to be an agreement.
“And, you know, I have spoken to a lot of people who come from a unionist background in Northern Ireland over the years.
“I do understand how they feel about the protocol. They feel that it diminishes their place in the Union, that it creates barriers between Britain and Northern Ireland that didn’t exist before.
“And I do understand that and I do get that. But that’s also true of Brexit.
“Brexit was imposed on Northern Ireland without cross-community consent, without the support of the majority of people in Northern Ireland, and one of the good things about the European Union was that it diminished barriers and diminished borders between north and south and that was a great reassurance to people who come from a nationalist background in particular.
“So I understand that there are two sides to this story.
“A lot of people who are unionists feel that the protocol has separated them from Great Britain.
“A lot of people from a nationalist background in Northern Ireland feel that it separated them from the rest of Ireland.
“So there are two sides to this story.”
Mr Varadkar said Brexit is a reality which is not going to be reversed.
“I accept that – I regret it but I accept it – and anything we’ve done since then, whether it was the backstop or the protocol, was an attempt just to deal with that reality and to avoid a hard border on our island, to make sure that human rights in Northern Ireland are upheld and there is no diminution of them, which is really important to me as well, and also that the European Single Market is protected, and they’re my firm red lines.
“The backstop, the protocol, were just mechanisms to achieve those objectives and, so long as we can achieve those objectives, I’ll be as flexible and reasonable as I can be.”
Sir Jeffrey welcomed Mr Varadkar’s comments, saying the protocol “was not, is not and will not be supported by unionists”.
“It was a mistake for its authors to press ahead with an agreement that has harmed Northern Ireland’s constitutional and economic place within the United Kingdom,” he said.
“Whilst Mr Varadkar’s comments indicate he now recognises the political reality in Northern Ireland, we need to see a fundamental change of attitude in the negotiations if we are to see an outcome that is durable.”
Powersharing in Northern Ireland is currently in flux due to a DUP boycott of the Stormont institutions in protest over the protocol.
The region’s largest unionist party has insisted it will not return to devolved government unless radical changes are made to trading arrangements that have created economic barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The EU and the UK are involved in negotiations to reduce the impact of the protocol. It remains to be seen if any deal struck by London and Brussels will be enough to convince the DUP to lift its block on powersharing.
The UK and Irish Governments are keen to see devolution return before April’s landmark 25th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace agreement.