‘Window of opportunity’ to end Brexit impasse over Irish border, says Dublin

A sign on a lamppost outside Larne Port, Northern Ireland  (PA Archive)
A sign on a lamppost outside Larne Port, Northern Ireland (PA Archive)

Ireland’s deputy prime minister has said that a “window of opportunity” exists to resolve the row over the post-Brexit border within the next few weeks.

Leo Varadkar said that the Northern Ireland protocol governing arrangements at the border with the Republic may have been “too strict” and said there was “further flexibility for some changes”.

His optimistic assessment came as UK officials resumed technical talks on the issue by video-link with the European Commission for the first time since February, and foreign secretary James Cleverly prepared to host his Irish counterpart Simon Coveney for talks over dinner in London.

A crucial deadline in the process is fast approaching on 28 October, when the UK government must call a rerun election to the devolved Stormont assembly unless the unionist DUP drops its veto on forming an executive.

Recent days have witnessed a softening of language on both sides of the dispute, with newly appointed Northern Ireland minister and hardline Eurosceptic Steve Baker apologising for undermining trust through his comments during the Brexit rows.

Speaking in Dublin on Thursday, Mr Varadkar said: “There is a window of opportunity now over the next couple of weeks to see if we can come to an agreement on the protocol.

“That would be very beneficial for Ireland and Northern Ireland because it would allow us to get the executive up and running, and could be helpful for Britain as well in economic terms.”

And Taoiseach Micheal Martin echoed the sentiments at a summit in Prague, where he briefly spoke with prime minister Liz Truss.

“There is a genuine desire on all sides, including the UK government, that there will be a negotiated resolution to this, but that doesn’t in any way understate the difficulties involved in arriving at a resolution,” said the Irish premier.

“But I do think there’s good faith on all sides.

Ms Truss remains committed to pushing through a bill to tear up the protocol agreed by Boris Johnson, which governs the arrangements for the border with the Republic and forms part of the EU withdrawal deal, despite warnings that she risks triggering a trade war with the EU.

The Independent understands that Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris stressed the importance of the 28 October deadline when he met European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen during her visit to London for the funeral of the Queen last month.

It is understood that he voiced concerns over the destabilising impact if Sinn Fein, which emerged as the largest party from elections in May, refused to participate in any new poll and the likely competition between unionist parties to be seen to take a hard line during the campaign on the protocol, which they oppose.

Mr Heaton-Harris this week said he was “100 per cent committed” to carrying through the legal requirement to call an election within 12 weeks of the deadline passing, though it is clear that political routes remain open to him to delay the move.

Mr Coveney on Wednesday welcomed the UK government’s decision to engage “seriously” in efforts to resolve the impasse, saying that the “mood music has changed quite fundamentally”.

And Mr Varadkar today acknowledged that the protocol as originally designed was a “little too strict” in relation to cross-border movements.

Unionists have complained that the deal agreed by Mr Johnson effectively creates a customs border between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, introducing expensive red tape and delays.

Mr Varadkar said: “We should not forget that the protocol is working. It was designed to prevent a hard border between north and south, and there is no hard border between north and south.

“It was designed to protect the integrity of the single market and it has, and also the Northern Ireland economy is outperforming the rest of the UK economically.

“But one thing that I would concede is that perhaps the protocol, as it was originally designed, was a little too strict.

“The protocol has not been fully implemented and yet it is still working. I think that demonstrates that there is some room for further flexibility for some changes that hopefully would make it acceptable to all sides.”