Taoiseach Micheál Martin hinted that a damaging showdown between the UK and EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol could be avoided as he revealed the talks between London, Brussels and Dublin are “going through a better phase now”.
Mr Martin – speaking in Cork at the weekend as he launched the €10m refurbishment of Cork Airport runway – also said it was critical to note that senior politicians in Wales and Scotland had warned that the last thing anyone needed at this time was a disruption to trade between the UK and EU.
The Taoiseach also played down the impact of comments made by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern on the fact that Belfast had specific “ghettos”.
Several unionist and loyalist leaders, including former DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster, had publicly called on Mr Ahern to apologise. “I didn’t see the full remarks (of Mr Ahern). It was in the context of a seminar, an academic seminar in terms of the protocol issues on Brexit and so on. Things get said, to be honest,” Mr Martin said.
The Taoiseach said he was encouraged by the engagement between the UK and EU over the protocol which last month had sparked fears of a trade war.
“The discussions I had over the last two days in Wales at the British Irish Council and our engagement with our European colleagues is that the talks are going through a better phase now between Maroš Šefčovič and Lord Frost.
“It’s still challenging but what emerged from the British Irish Council and discussions with Secretary of State Michael Gove is genuine desire across the board to get a negotiated resolution of this.
“It was interesting to hear the First Minister from Wales and from Scotland (being) very strong on the view that the last thing collectively we need now is more disruption in trade.
“They are really seeing the impact of Covid-19 on supply chains in the UK and the impact of Brexit too in terms of Scotland and Wales. They were making the point to us that there were manpower issues in terms of skills availability in the workplace and so on.
“So the last thing they want is any disruption, further disruption between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
“What I’m saying is that basically is our view from my talks with leaders in Northern Ireland as well – if we (are) collectively of the view that we need to resolve this negotiation and I think that’s the focus I have.”
Mr Martin also insisted he had repeatedly sought engagement with unionist and loyalist communities in Northern Ireland.
“I’m engaging with them and they will admit, they will have to say I’m engaging with them on a consistent and constant basis with all the unionist leadership in terms of the protocol.
“You know, in fact, I would have spoken to the EU Commission having heard the concerns of unionist leaders in respect to the operation of the protocol.
“To be fair to Maroš Šefčovič – he went to Northern Ireland. He met with all the stakeholders. He responded with a very far-reaching package that many people didn’t think he would go that far. So I think people are listening and we are very focussed now… on getting a resolution.”
Meanwhile, speaking to the BBC yesterday, Mr Sefcovic said “some progress” has been made in talks between the UK and EU.
“I’m sure that if Lord Frost and the UK would double their efforts… we can resolve all the outstanding issues to the satisfaction of the people of Northern Ireland,” he added.