If Leo Varadkar’s New Year’s resolution was to be more conciliatory, he’s off to a flying start.
In an unexpected turn, Varadkar, who is back as Irish prime minister, has softened on the idea of changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol, the element of the UK’s withdrawal agreement from the EU governing the status of NI post-Brexit.
The PM said there is “room for flexibility and room for changes” on the Protocol, which he described as “too strict” on Northern Ireland.
He continued: “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.”
The UK government has proposed legislation that would unilaterally override parts of the Protocol. Stormont is gridlocked, with the DUP boycotting Parliament in protest at the status quo.
Varadkar 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.”
It’s a big deal that this is coming from Varadkar, who himself played a key role in negotiating the Protocol. The deal has allowed goods to continue to flow freely across the Irish land border at the cost of tougher controls on goods imported to Northern Ireland from Britain – which has infuriated unionists.
Varadkar said he understood this anger, and that he wants a revised agreement that addresses concerns that NI is being separated from the UK.
Referring to the fact that 85 per cent of goods arriving in Northern Ireland stay within the territory, Varadkar said: “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.”
Under Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, resolving the Northern Ireland issue looked like pie in the sky. London and Brussels are still locked in technical talks, but with Rishi Sunak’s less hostile tone, and Varadkar’s comments today, maybe 2023 will see a breakthrough on the bitterly contested issue after all.
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