Northern Ireland institutions are “just about hanging on” after a “bruising number of years” and the focus must be on building relationships rather than on a border poll, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.
Mr Coveney also told the Seanad that “we can move away from threats of legal action” after the UK’s unilateral move to extend the grace period for post-Brexit checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain until October 1st.
During a debate on Brexit he told Senators,“we can get back to partnership through a specialised committee and joint committee” and can get the Northern Ireland protocol “back on an even keel”.
He also said it was an opportunity for “more pragmatism and flexibility from the European Commission as well”.
The Minister admitted that “I’ve become some sort of a bogey man” over the protocol but “the irony is” that his office more than any other “has been constantly talking to the European Commission about need to for pragmatism and compromise”.
In an impassioned contribution he said the narrative “now is that it is being foisted on Northern Ireland by the EU and Irish Government and it’s not”.
The protocol “was designed as much in London as it was in Brussels, which people seem to conveniently forget”, he pointed out.
It is a solution “that isn’t perfect but is certainly the best way of mitigating the disruption on the island of Ireland”.
He said there had to be some checks and he understood that “unionists see it through [the] lens of identity” but they all had to work in partnership.
He warned that a collapse in the protocol would result in two “very unpalatable choices” for Ireland.
To protect Ireland’s place in the EU market, the State would have to put some kind of border infrastructure in place, which would be politically impossible “or we would be taken out of the EU market by default”.
Speaking about calls for a border poll on a united Ireland, Mr Coveney said the focus had to be on building relationships first because the Northern Ireland institutions are not functioning as they should. They are “just about hanging on” after a “bruising number of years”.
He said that “perhaps the most challenging element of Brexit” was in how to rebuild relationships “that have undoubtedly been damaged.
“Good things happen in Northern Ireland when the British and Irish governments work together,” he added.
Earlier Fianna Fáil Senator Niall Blaney said there is no border in the Irish Sea and “we should knock that every chance we get”. He said “it is an imaginary border”.
The Donegal Senator said unionists are in an awkward position and “we don’t need to do anything that ramps that up but rather the opposite”.
He said those calling for a North-South poll needed to be reminded “of how the Good Friday Agreement was won”.
He said a similar sentiment is needed now “this country coming together as one isn’t necessarily about territory but is more about people”.
He said of Fianna Fáil’s relationship with Sinn Féin that “we sometimes rub each other up the wrong way” but everyone had work to do for a border poll “down the road” and Sinn Féin needed to put more emphasis on building relationships with unionists.