Ireland is willing to be flexible and creative over the Northern Ireland Protocol but Dublin does not want to renegotiate the Brexit divorce treaty, according to a Minister of State.
It comes as the UK today demanded “significant” changes to the post-Brexit trading arrangements, but held back from tearing up parts of the deal.
"There is possibility for flexibility," Thomas Byrne, Ireland’s junior minister for European Affairs, told Sky. "Our position is that we don't want to renegotiate the protocol."
His comments come after the UK's Brexit minister, David Frost, said “we cannot go on as we are” but held back from using provisions in the deal which could allow elements of it to be suspended – though he claimed the conditions allowing him to do so had been met.
He warned the “purist” way the Northern Ireland Protocol was being implemented was causing economic and societal damage.
Mr Frost called for a “standstill” period maintaining existing grace periods allowing the flow of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland.
But he also said his plans to resolve the difficulties would require a “significant change to the Northern Ireland Protocol” and “we do not shy away from that”.
The Protocol effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the European Union’s single market for goods, in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
This means checks on goods being sent from Britain into the single market – and in some cases could result in prohibitions on certain products that do not comply with EU rules.
Mr Frost said a “new balance” in the arrangements was needed to enable goods meeting EU and UK standards – rather than just the rules set by Brussels – to circulate in Northern Ireland.
The relationship between the UK and EU should no longer be policed by the European Court of Justice, he added.
“All of this is entirely consistent with maintaining an open border without infrastructure checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland,” he said.
He told peers: “We urge the EU to look at it with fresh eyes and to work with us to seize this opportunity and to put our relationships onto a better footing. We stand ready to work with them to deliver the brighter future which is in reach.”
The proposals published by the UK government include:
- An “evidence-based and targeted approach” to goods at risk of entering the single market, but products destined just for Northern Ireland would be allowed to circulate “near-freely”.
- Continued access in Northern Ireland to goods from the rest of the UK, through a regulatory approach which accepts both British and European Union standards.
- A “normal” treaty framework to govern the arrangements, with no role for the Court of Justice.
One idea put forward would be for UK traders to declare whether the final destination for their goods was Northern Ireland or Ireland.
“Full customs formalities would be required for goods going to Ireland and the UK would undertake to enforce them. Other goods would not require customs processes.”
Mr Frost said change was necessary due to economic and social damage which he said would have justified the use of Article 16, effectively tearing up parts of the deal.
There was a “false, but raw” perception in Northern Ireland's Unionist community of separation from the rest of the UK which has had “profound political consequences”, he said.
Mr Frost told peers that while there had been progress in talks with the European Union “overall, those discussions have not got to the heart of the problem”.
“Put very simply, we cannot go on as we are,” he said.
Northern Ireland had faced reductions in supermarket product lines, with 200 suppliers deciding they would no longer sell there.
Marks & Spencer’s chairman warned there will be some “gaps on shelves” in Northern Ireland this Christmas.