People in Northern Ireland should be taking advantage of the current situation under the new post-Brexit trading rules, according to the Tánaiste.
Leo Varadkar said businesses in Northern Ireland have unfettered access to both the British market and the EU single market and that many were “not exploiting it” to the extent that they could.
The Tánaiste’s comments come amid increasing tensions over the Northern Ireland protocol.
Physical inspections on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, which are required under the protocol, have been suspended amid threats and intimidation of staff.
The DUP announced a series of political moves aimed at frustrating the operation of the protocol amid mounting unionist and loyalist concerns that Northern Ireland’s place within the UK is being undermined.
British prime minister Boris Johnson has said he is willing to override part of the protocol to ensure that there is no post-Brexit trade barrier down the Irish Sea.
The protocol is a mechanism agreed by the UK and EU as part of the withdrawal talks to ensure a free-flowing Irish border.
Speaking at Government Buildings in Dublin on Wednesday, Mr Varadkar said he understood the Northern Ireland protocol had caused some issues.
“I think everyone appreciates that there have been some real practical difficulties in implementing it,” he said.
“That’s evident from the fact that some supermarkets for example in Northern Ireland have had difficulty with supplies. There are issues that we’re dealing with every day from yields to steel, and through to pets, and all sorts of different issues.
“What the Irish Government wants to do is to work with the British Government to work with the European Commission and work with Northern Ireland executive, if they can come together on this to iron out and sort out some of those problems.”
He said Ireland had never wanted any trade borders but that they were a direct consequence of the UK’s decision not to stay in the customs union or the single market.
“Checks have to happen somewhere, either on the land border between north and south or in the ports in Northern Ireland and the decision was taken to do those checks at the ports in Northern Ireland, which is much more practical, much easier for lots of different reasons.
He added the only way to change that would be a cross community vote but the majority does not exist to do so.
He said he did not believe that Article 16 of the protocol would be invoked.
“What the European Commission did the other day was wrong, it shouldn’t have happened, and was reversed very quickly, ” Mr Varadkar said.
“It would be equally wrong for the UK Government to do the same.
“I don’t see Article 16 being invoked either in Brussels or in London.”
Mr Varadkar added: “We’ll do our best to iron out the difficulties that have arisen as a result of the Northern Ireland Protocol, and would also hope that people will work with industry in Northern Ireland to take advantage of the current situation.
“Bear in mind somebody can produce goods in Northern Ireland, and they have full unfettered access to both the British market and the single market and that’s actually one of the bonuses for Northern Ireland though I think people, perhaps are not exploiting to the extent they could.”
The Tánaiste condemned the threats made against port workers in Northern Ireland.
“I think any of us have to condemn utterly anyone who would threaten to do violence or somebody in the course of their work,” he said.
“Whether they’re a customs official working for the Government, whether they’re a member of the security forces and police forces, there is no justification for anyone, making any threats of violence to anyone when it comes to this issue.”
Tánaiste @LeoVaradkar and Minister @McConalogue have opened the 1st call of the Government’s €100m Brexit Scheme for the Agri-food sector.
With the sector uniquely exposed to Brexit, the funding allows investment in new products & market diversification. @agriculture_ie @entirl
— Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment (@DeptEnterprise) February 3, 2021
Mr Varadkar was speaking at the launch of the first call for applications under the Government’s €100 million agri-food fund to assist the sector.
Eligible projects must have total eligible capital expenditure of at least one million euros and up to a maximum of €25 million.
Applicants will need to demonstrate that the proposed investments will underpin sustainable food production at both farm and processor level, and that they will contribute to a balanced sustainable regional development in line with national agri-food and agri-environmental policies and strategies.
It is hoped the scheme will encourage enterprises who process or market dairy and meat products to make the strategic investments needed to future proof their sectors.