Ireland: Johnson may need to go before Belfast’s Brexit dilemma can be solved

DUBLIN – Ireland and the EU may need to await a change of leader in London before the confrontation over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland can finally be defused, Irish Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Thursday.

Varadkar – who as Irish premier struck a 2019 agreement with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that inspired the post-Brexit trade protocol for Northern Ireland – accused Johnson of ignoring majority opinion in the divided U.K. region in favor of destructive fight-picking with Brussels.

Varadkar said he’d “never seen relations as bad” between London and Dublin. He denounced Johnson’s threat to override core parts of the protocol treaty via Westminster legislation as an illegal gambit to placate the main pro-Brexit party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionists. They are blocking Northern Ireland’s legislature and cross-community government from operating until Britain scraps the protocol.

Johnson’s explicit backing of one Belfast faction versus pro-protocol parties was undermining the careful balance of interests contained in Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord, Varadkar told BBC Belfast.

Trust needs to be restored. … If we can’t with this (British) government, then a future government,” said Varadkar, who is due to resume the prime minister’s post in Ireland’s coalition government later this year.

Varadkar’s message chimed with a similar assessment from Jonathan Powell, former chief of staff to ex-British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose close cooperation with the Irish government proved crucial in achieving the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast 24 years ago.

“Just as we spent a decade building trust, the current (British) government is spending its time destroying trust, which is catastrophic,” Powell told the Irish parliament’s committee for protecting the Good Friday Agreement in Dublin. “I regret very deeply the current state of bilateral relations, which are terrible. It’s completely unnecessary.”

As Blair’s key lieutenant in the Belfast talks, Powell built good working relations with the Irish nationalists of Sinn Féin, who have grown to become the biggest party in Northern Ireland and, like most local parties, support the protocol as essential to minimize Brexit-related economic damage to both parts of Ireland.

Powell said he expected the European Commission to offer further compromises to simplify the protocol’s requirements for EU checks on British goods arriving at Northern Ireland ports, particularly creation of a fast-track “green lane” for products that aren’t crossing the EU border into the Republic of Ireland.

“But if I was [an EU negotiator] I wouldn’t do it now, because you’re going to get nothing back in negotiations,” Powell said.

He said Brussels could strike a worthwhile deal on protocol rules reforms only once a reliable negotiating partner emerges in London.

“I know it sounds rather hopeless to say let’s wait for a new prime minister. But since I’m believing it’s going to happen quite soon, if I was in the Irish government or the Commission, I would be preparing for negotiations post-Boris Johnson. If he stays, we’re going to have a real problem,” Powell told the all-party panel of Irish lawmakers.

“I don’t see, if you’re an EU negotiator, how you can trust a government that’s done these things against the law. I don’t have a magic answer for what we can do as long as Boris Johnson stays in power – apart from pray.”

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