Ireland’s minister for European Affairs has said that a “tough guy approach” when it comes to Northern Ireland will lead to disaster, adding that threats to suspend the Northern Ireland protocol represented the first time the UK government has been out of step with the international consensus on preserving peace and stability in Northern Ireland in 25 years.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4, Thomas Byrne said there was “a serious danger of complete instability in Northern Ireland” if the UK government continues its “tough guy approach” through threats to trigger article 16, which would suspend post-Brexit trade arrangements.
He said: “We have a situation where we have the US putting pressure on the British government, the EU united in one voice with concern about Northern Ireland, Ireland concerned about Northern Ireland. We’ve never had a situation in the last 25 years where the British government is out of the loop on that.
“We want very close relations with the British government and good cooperation, we want to be singing off the same hymn sheet.”
He urged the UK government to be “constructive” in talks today with the EU about the Northern Ireland protocol, which keeps Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single market for goods, resulting in some checks for products crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain, to put an end to escalating tensions in the Northern Ireland after two buses were set alight in protest in the past week.
Byrne’s comments came as the UK’s chief negotiator to the EU, David Frost, will meet the European Commission’s vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, on Friday for the latest round of talks after the alterations proposed by the EU in October to remove checks on 80% of goods between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland fell short of UK government requests.
The UK government wants the EU to remove the role of judges in the European court of justice (ECJ) as the arbitrators of disputes. There is growing speculation that the UK could use a get-out clause from the deal in the coming weeks if this is not achieved.
Frost told the House of Lords on Wednesday that triggering article 16 – which would suspend elements of the arrangements designed to maintain free-flowing borderless trade on the island of Ireland – would be the UK’s only option if the dispute was not resolved.
He said there was “a real opportunity to turn away from confrontation, to move beyond our current difficulties and put in place a new, and better, equilibrium” in the talks. But he added it was “not inevitable” that article 16 would be triggered.
He said: “In my view, this talks process has not reached its end. Although we have been talking nearly four weeks now, there remain possibilities that the talks have not yet seriously examined, including many approaches suggested by the UK.
“There is more to do and I will certainly not give up on this process unless and until it is abundantly clear that nothing more can be done. We are certainly not there yet. If, however, we do in due course reach that point, the article 16 safeguards will be our only option.”
The Irish government has held talks with Joe Biden’s administration about the protocol. On Thursday, the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said contact with the US government was designed to “encourage progress” in negotiations.