Bertie Ahern, one of the architects of the Good Friday agreement, has urged the UK to get back to negotiations with the EU over the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol, arguing a solution is “not rocket science”.
Speaking in Brussels on Thursday, the former taoiseach said he was concerned that Northern Ireland was being dragged into a high-stakes political game not of its making.
“Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat worrying about how this will work out. I do worry that Northern Ireland is caught up [in this UK-EU dispute],” he said. “I don’t want Northern Ireland to be part of the blame game of all that.”
Ahern was speaking at a Renew Europe roundtable with MEPs and Northern Ireland members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) a day after it emerged that he and the former UK prime minister Tony Blair had been helping the outgoing Northern Ireland minister, Conor Burns, try to get fresh talks opened.
There is speculation in Whitehall that Liz Truss will trigger article 16 of the protocol next week, before a 15 September deadline to make a formal response to legal proceedings launched by the EU over the dispute.
This could allow the UK to suspend the EU checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, but would worsen the already strained relations.
Even then, Ahern said he believed a deal was possible.
“This isn’t rocket science. I personally believe that this isn’t some impossible task,” he told the audience of cross-party Northern Ireland politicians in Brussels.
He said he agreed with the Democratic Unionist party leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, that the checks on goods were “unfair” as it created a barrier in the internal UK market. But said it was “equally unfair” to expect the EU not to protect its own single market.
The prospect of an early resolution or return to talks faded on Wednesday after Liz Truss appointed Chris Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker, both Eurosceptics, as Northern Ireland secretary and minister of state respectively.
EU insiders expect relations to deteriorate further in the coming weeks.
The Biden administration sent Liz Truss a message on her second day in office warning against “efforts to undo the Northern Ireland protocol”.
Ahern also criticised the British government, arguing it was not approaching talks with a view to doing a deal.
It was “not respectful or reasonable for the UK government” to dismiss the proposals put on the table by the European Commission last October as simply “not comprehensive enough”, he said.
Ahern said another “big problem” was on the horizon with the plans to bring in laws to enable the UK to rip up part of the protocol.
If the laws currently heading to the House of Lords were passed, he said, there would not be “a hope in hell” of an agreement with the UK.
“I would be glad to eat my words, but where do lines of compromise lie?” he asked.
He said it was “a hollow argument” of the UK simply to decide to “set aside” the checks, but there were issues to be discussed, including replacing physical checks with electronic checks.
“I do not believe we are talking about a boat out in the sea and a fellow with a clipboard … but technologically these goods are all logged, so it should be possible that they are checked,” he said.