DUBLIN — Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said that “we’ve all made mistakes in the handling of Brexit,” as he argued there was “room for flexibility and room for changes” for post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, in an interview with the U.K.’s Press Association published Tuesday.
The Northern Ireland trade protocol, a key plank of the U.K.’s 2019 Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, kept Northern Ireland subject to EU sanitary and regulatory standards on goods while the rest of the U.K. exited. This approach means goods still flow freely across the Irish land border in both directions but at the expense of tougher controls on goods imported from Britain — a condition that has infuriated British unionists in Northern Ireland.
Varadkar said he understood the anger — and that he wanted a revised agreement that would better address unionist anxieties about being separated in any way from Britain.
The trouble, he said, is that Brexit itself caused the opposite problem, by threatening to make the Irish border an economic and security obstacle again. The same trade protocol solved that problem.
“I’m sure we’ve all made mistakes in the handling of Brexit,” he told PA. “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.”
Varadkar noted that the U.K.’s unilateral decisions not to impose full-fledged checks on goods arriving at Northern Ireland ports, as the EU wanted to happen, had not led to uncontrolled movement of goods into the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.
Referring to the reality that 85 percent of goods arriving in Northern Ireland stay within its 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.”
Varadkar said it was already clear, based on his recent conversations with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the Commission’s lead protocol troubleshooter, Maroš Šefčovič, “that’s their position too.”
“We are willing to show flexibility and to make compromises. We do want there to be an agreement,” he said, referring to the ongoing technical talks between London and Brussels.
Since Rishi Sunak became U.K. prime minister, the mood music of those talks has improved, particularly in direct talks between Šefčovič and U.K. Foreign Minister James Cleverly.
Varadkar’s latest comments appear designed to defuse tensions with the north’s unionist leaders, who have demonized him for his prominent role in persuading then-U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson to accept a protocol-style compromise that would keep Ireland’s land border barrier-free once post-Brexit trade rules went live in January 2021.
The Irish leader has signaled a softening of his post-Brexit policy stance in recent months as, under terms of the coalition government deal in Dublin, he prepared to transition back to the office of prime minister, the post he previously held in a minority Fine Gael government from 2017 to 2020.
Varadkar has faced death threats from “loyalist” extremists in Northern Ireland who blame him for creation of a so-called Irish Sea border, but insists that won’t stop him from traveling to Belfast soon in the hope of improving relations.
The main pro-British party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionists, offered no immediate reaction to Varadkar’s comments.