Not once, but twice now, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has taken a pop at the very Northern Ireland protocol he helped construct. Speaking to the BBC, he expressed his regret at the protocol being imposed on Northern Ireland without gaining support from both unionists and nationalists. Varadkar argued the measure worked, but could understand why unionists felt it had “weakened the union”.
Varadkar returned to the position of Taoiseach last month, having previously served between 2017 and 2020. This made him instrumental in the Brexit talks which led to the protocol’s creation. Yet the UK and EU have continued negotiations since ever then to find a resolution.
Nearly a year ago, the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) Paul Givan resigned as First Minister, which collapsed the power-sharing agreement and left no devolved government in Northern Ireland. The DUP remains resolute that no deputy first minister will be nominated until the Brexit trading arrangements are resolved.
The Taoiseach was optimistic about the chances of an agreement, stating “the possibility of an agreement… in the next couple of months is very real and, with reasonableness and flexibility on both sides, it can be achieved”.
The DUP was pleased the Taoiseach admitted the problem, with Sir Jeffrey Donaldson saying: “The Northern Ireland Protocol has never had the support of unionists and never will enjoy unionist support. It was imposed against the will of unionists”.
Varadkar has previously argued “mistakes were made on all sides” regarding Brexit and that he had a wish to be “flexible and reasonable”, having also previously conceded the Protocol was “too strict”.
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Despite this, the latest deadline for restoring power sharing in Northern Ireland has passed, with no sign of progress. This has left the UK government with a legal duty to call a snap Assembly election within 12 weeks.
Recognising there are no easy solutions, Varadkar’s deputy, the former Taoiseach Micheál Martin, has admitted the “issues are very challenging…so I don’t understate the formidable challenges and the mountain that has to be climbed. So I do think it’s worth the effort.”
With the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on the horizon, reaching an agreement would be more timely than ever. Yet with the government excluding Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Féin, from a recent Northern Ireland Office meeting with James Cleverly, tensions on both sides may have only grown.
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