Irish seek wiggle room for UK on protocol

Ireland’s Coveney sees trouble in British calls for ‘radical change.'

Irish seek wiggle room for UK on protocol

DUBLIN — The Irish want to help Britain win more flexibility in enforcing post-Brexit trade rules, but they worry that British calls for “radical change” to the Northern Ireland protocol really are code for wrecking it.

“We are making the case strongly at an EU level for flexibility and pragmatism, but also an adherence to what was agreed,” Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said after hosting the first meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in two years.

His Dublin Castle discussions with Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis ended Thursday on a relatively upbeat note. They agreed that such meetings — supposedly an important part of Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord, but held rarely since Tony Blair left Downing Street in 2007 — needed to become regular events once again.

Standing side by side, both leaders expressed hopes that the EU would soon accept three U.K. requests: postponing a ban on shipments of chilled British meats into Northern Ireland to October, and creating exceptions for medicines and household pets to move freely from Britain to Northern Ireland, which remains subject to EU single market rules.

“I hope this week we will see progress on the British government request for a modest extension to the grace period for chilled meats. I hope we’ll be able to see progress on sensitive issues like guaranteeing supplies of medicines into Northern Ireland, and also on pets,” Coveney said.

“We’ve been very much part of the EU discussions this week, looking for a generous and pragmatic response to that ask,” he said, describing Ireland’s role as “trying to ensure that the EU understands the complexity and the fragility of politics in Northern Ireland.”

But Coveney expressed concern at the latest smoke signals from Downing Street. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman repeated calls Thursday for EU members to accept “radical changes” to EU customs and sanitary rules required at Northern Ireland ports.

“If looking for radical change means that you’re not committed to the protocol, then that’s a problem,” said Coveney, whose government fears that lax British border enforcement could ultimately threaten the Republic of Ireland’s own EU market access.

Lewis said the British government expected a positive response to the U.K.’s request for a three-month delay to banning Northern Ireland imports of goods from the rest of the U.K. containing chilled meat. Much of that flow involves wholesale beef, pork and chicken destined for Northern Ireland processing plants.

Lewis has previously suggested that Britain wouldn’t enforce such a ban, billing it instead as an irrational EU war on Norfolk sausages and Melton Mowbray pork pies. He didn’t repeat that line Thursday, insisting the ball was still in Brussels’ court.

“We’ve not had a formal response yet from the EU. We need to see that response. Some technical conversations are ongoing,” Lewis said.

Troublingly, Lewis again repeated a basic point of confusion regarding the Good Friday Agreement, which he says is being undermined by the protocol.

That 1998 agreement, signed by Blair and then-Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern following two years of Belfast talks, proposed creating three tiers of new political institutions to foster cooperation across Britain and Ireland.

These three fronts involved a cross-community government uniting British unionists and Irish nationalists within Northern Ireland; a new north-south council promoting cooperation between the two governments on the island of Ireland; and two new “east-west” institutions promoting cooperation between Dublin and London and, more widely, between the Irish government and seven regional British administrations.

Lewis once again claimed Thursday that the protocol was harming the Good Friday Agreement’s “east-west” element, because Northern Ireland unionists see the protocol harming their links with the rest of the U.K.

“The Good Friday Agreement, in all of its strands, east-west is important as much as north-south,” he said.

The Good Friday Agreement doesn’t define “east-west” relations that way at all. One of two institutions created in 1998 to promote these relations, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, met Thursday for the first time since May 2019 – not because the protocol somehow stopped it, but because Johnson’s government until now wouldn’t hold a meeting.

Since Blair left office, regular British-Irish conferences stopped and have been staged, until now, only when Dublin lobbied for months for them to happen, chiefly during Theresa May’s period in office.

But Lewis said another involving himself and Coveney would be held in London in November.

Coveney called such conferences “a really important institution of the Good Friday Agreement” that will help London and Dublin to get back on the same post-Brexit page. “We are committing from today to ensure that it happens much more regularly.”

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