UK and Ireland should strike bilateral deal to replace Northern Ireland Protocol, claims ex-Irish ambassador

Harry Yorke
·4-min read
Former senior Irish diplomat Ray Bassett is the latest guest on The Telegraph's Planet Normal podcast with columnists Allison Pearson and Liam Halligan
Former senior Irish diplomat Ray Bassett is the latest guest on The Telegraph's Planet Normal podcast with columnists Allison Pearson and Liam Halligan
Planet Normal Podcast Ray Bassett
Planet Normal Podcast Ray Bassett

The UK and Ireland should broker a bilateral deal to replace the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol, a former senior Irish diplomat has claimed, as he accused Dublin of being too close to the EU.

Ray Bassett, who previously served as Ireland's ambassador to Canada, Jamaica and the Bahamas said he believed the new post-Brexit trading arrangements were fuelling “such a disillusionment” among unionists and should be overhauled.

Mr Bassett, who also served as joint secretary to the British-Irish intergovernmental conference, told The Telegraph's Planet Normal podcast, which you can listen to using the audio player above, that the implementation of the protocol had been "very heavy handed" and appeared to have "destroyed" good will in Northern Ireland.

While acknowledging that the reasons behind the recent loyalist rioting in Northern Ireland were complex, he added that the protocol appeared to have been the “trigger.”

Even if the EU now made concessions to reduce the red tape and checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea, Mr Bassett said he feared it would not be "enough" due to the hostile views of unionists towards it.

Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland

His intervention comes as Lord Frost, the former Brexit negotiator now in charge of EU relations, heads to Brussels on Thursday evening amid ongoing efforts to resolve disagreements over the protocol between the two sides.

Lord Frost will have dinner with Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice president, following days of positive discussions over the timing and implementation of new checks and rules on goods crossing the Irish Sea as required by the protocol.

Both sides on Wednesday played down the expectations of a breakthrough, with UK sources stating that significant differences remained despite positive talks in recent days.

Lord Frost will also hold separate talks earlier in the day in London with Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, and Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney.

The Telegraph understands that Mr Lewis will urge Ireland and the EU to step up its engagements with unionists in Northern Ireland, having told MPs on Wednesday he believed there was a lack of understanding around the challenges the protocol posed for their sense of “national identity.”

However, while the UK and EU insist the protocol must remain in place, Mr Bassett said: “I just do not think that tinkering with the protocol at this stage is going to do the trick.”

He went on to state: "Arlene Foster was quite prepared at one stage to accept the border and the Irish say, but I don't think she envisaged at the level at which it is at the moment.

"And I think the only way you're going to stop this is for the Irish and British government and the parties in Northern Ireland to get together and hammer out a deal and hand it to Brussels.”

"People in Brussels have been telling me that even the people who are in negotiations with Lord Frost say they have difficulty when they come back to Brussels with the ideologues who sort of say, well, this the Single Market, you know, as if, you know, a group of some English sausage going to Belfast, is going to undermine the Single Market.

"Even in Brussels, there are people who say they have difficulty getting even minor concessions too. I think we do need to take it out of the hands of the ideologues from Brussels and get down to practical application."

Mr Bassett also suggested the Irish government had been too closely aligned with Brussels prior to Brexit, adding that it should have worked with the UK to achieve a better outcome.

“If the UK population decided to leave the EU, we should have followed what we had promised in the Good Friday Agreement of being a good neighbour and partner with the United Kingdom.

“And we should have assisted the United Kingdom to get a reasonably good deal out of the EU because it was not only because we had signed up to that, but because it was in our interests.”

He added that while Dublin had initially been prepared to work more constructively with the UK to solve challenges posed by Brexit, this changed after Leo Varadkar, the former Irish Taoiseach, was elected.

"Leo Varadkar...has openly said when he was younger that he is a European federalist. So he's much more committed to the European idea. They took the decision to realign Ireland much more strongly with Brussels."

Listen to Ray Bassett's full interview on The Telegraph's Planet Normal podcast with columnists Allison Pearson and Liam Halligan using the audio player at the top of this article, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your preferred podcast app.

Join Liam Halligan and Allison Pearson to discuss Northern Ireland and the latest Planet Normal episode in the comments section of this article at 11am on Thursday 15 April.