Tuesday, 22 November 2022
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
132. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the current position regarding negotiations between the European Union and the UK regarding the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [57303/22]
I understand that technical negotiations between the UK and EU on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol have recommenced. As we know, this issue is linked with efforts to get the Executive up and running at Stormont. The House will appreciate if the Minister could update it on those negotiations.
There is more optimism now than there has been for some time that, with a new Prime Minister, Secretary of State, Foreign Secretary and a relatively new look British Cabinet, there may be an honest effort by the current British Government to work with the EU negotiating team, led by Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, to try to address the outstanding issues linked to the Northern Ireland protocol once and for all. We know the EU side has been willing to compromise; it has already shown that. We need a similar spirit of compromise from the British side. If that is forthcoming, then we can find a way between now and the end of the year, or shortly thereafter, to get a middle-ground position in terms of landing zones on some of the outstanding issues that are very problematic, such as how we treat goods coming in from Great Britain into Northern Ireland that we know are staying in Northern Ireland in terms of purchase and consumption. We have to treat such goods very differently from that we know are in danger of travelling on to other parts of the Single Market. As Vice President Šefčovič said, by working to try to make checks virtually invisible, we can resolve the issue. That is the kind of thing that many in the unionist community have been asking for, namely, that we respect trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the greatest extent possible, while protecting the integrity of the Single Market and how it functions. That is the core of the deal.
Other issues need to be resolved around VAT, state aid, the role of the European Court of Justice and so on, but the core of the deal is to dramatically reduce checks on goods that are staying within the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland and are not at risk of travelling on to other parts of the Single Market. Is it going to be easy to do that? No, it is not. If it was, it would have been done long ago.
The difference is that we now have a Prime Minister who wants to negotiate a solution. I am not convinced that his two immediate predecessors were in that space, particularly because of the pressure they were under internally within their party and the fact that the politics of tension with EU have not always played well.
There are other considerations in terms of economic and cost-of-living pressures. The partnership approach between the UK and EU is something that both sides are looking to develop positively. On the back of the conversations I have had, there is a definite effort from the British Government to improve relations with Ireland and the Government here. We are responding positively to that.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. Thankfully, there is now political stability at Westminster and a more pragmatic mood prevails. As the Minister said, there is some optimism that agreement on the protocol can be reached.
The Minister dealt with the issue of trade, but the Northern Ireland protocol also deals with commitments concerning the non-diminution of rights under the Good Friday Agreement. There are obligations concerning the functioning of the single electricity market. The protocol also specifies the need to maintain the conditions for North-South co-operation on the island of Ireland. These two matters need to be monitored. Are these commitments being considered as part of the current negotiations?
I am conscious of the fact that there is a provision for the Northern Ireland Assembly to vote on the protocol in 2024. All of these issues are becoming more urgent. I welcome the positive tone of the Minister's response and how relations between Britain and Ireland are developing in respect of these matters.
We are all working on the basis that Britain needs a deal and that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak be offered a deal, regardless of what he means about not looking for a Swiss-style relationship with the European Union. We could rise and fall on the basis of comments from British politicians over the past number of years.
We all want to see matters being streamlined and the protocol issue being taken off the agenda in terms of there being no possibility of a hard Border and, beyond that, facilitating unionism to get off the hook it made for itself. I will be quite honest about that. There are outstanding spectres, such as protocol legislation, the Nationality and Borders Act and, as the Minister said, legacy amnesty legislation.
The difficulty there is I do not believe Britain is ever going to want to address its involvement in its dirty war in Ireland.
There were many sides to that dirty war. It was not just one side. Our focus now has to be on trying to be positive about getting to solutions. That is my focus and the Taoiseach's focus. There is not a proposed deal from Prime Minister Sunak. There has been a variety of commentary about Swiss-style arrangements and so forth, much of which is not accurate. Time and space are required for two experienced negotiating teams to work through the areas, which both sides understand very well, in regard to reaching landing zones using pragmatism and flexibility within the confines of the protocol, because the legal wording of the Treaty, which is now international law, is not going to change. However I believe the protocol can be implemented in a way that is different from what many people perceive to be a negative impact on trade from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. We can improve the implementation of the protocol significantly. I believe the EU is willing to do that but it needs a partner that is also willing to compromise and to ensure there is proper, real-time sharing of data and so on, in order that the risks the EU has to manage in regard to the integrity of its own Single Market - this is not just about Ireland and Northern Ireland but about the Single Market for all 27 countries in it - can be managed as well. Unfortunately, time is dragging on and running out. There are not that many weeks left between now and Christmas, by which time many people had hoped we could get a deal. In many ways, the less megaphone diplomacy we have on this issue and the more honest and detailed interaction between the two negotiating teams in London and Brussels, the better at this stage. What is needed of course is a green light politically to both negotiating teams to get the job done through sensible compromises.