Europe

Ireland: UK-EU deal on fixing Brexit trade protocol ‘doable’ by Christmas

DUBLIN — A U.K.-EU compromise by December on revised post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland would enable the revival of Stormont power-sharing without another election, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Tuesday.

Briefing a group of visiting foreign journalists, Coveney said his most recent discussions with senior U.K. leaders indicated “a real intent in London to try to resolve the protocol issues through negotiation over the next few weeks and months. The EU will respond to that generously. I know they will.”

Coveney pointed to Thursday’s expected meeting between the British and Irish prime ministers, Rishi Sunak and Micheál Martin, at a British-Irish Council summit in Jersey as likely to signal whether such a breakthrough by Christmas is possible.

“We hope that the focus will move away from unilateral action towards partnership. The U.K. and EU need to be partners,” Coveney said, adding: “I think it’s doable by the end of the year.”

Any U.K.-EU agreement on reforming enforcement of the Northern Ireland trade protocol should significantly reduce, but not eliminate, EU-required scrutiny of British goods arriving in Northern Ireland ports. The protocol, a part of the U.K.’s 2019 Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, requires Northern Ireland to remain aligned to EU goods rules so that goods can keep flowing without Brexit barriers between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.

This policy avoids what would be even greater difficulties policing trade along Ireland’s meandering 310-mile border. But it has infuriated the region’s British unionists, who see how the protocol makes trade easier with the Irish republic than with the rest of the U.K. — and brings an economically united Ireland closer to reality.

‘Walk before we run’

Coveney said any U.K.-EU agreement on minimizing so-called “Irish Sea border” checks should be sufficient to persuade the Democratic Unionist Party to end its 10-month obstruction of power-sharing at Stormont, the hilltop parliament overlooking Belfast.

“Through negotiation we can respond positively to many of the asks the DUP have made. But the DUP also have to understand that there’s compromise required of all sides. No one party can effectively lay the ground rules for everybody else,” Coveney said.

But what if the Democratic Unionists — who long opposed the Good Friday peace accord of 1998 that proposed power-sharing and was the only Northern Ireland party to back Brexit in 2016 — still won’t budge?

POLITICO asked Coveney whether, in such a scenario, the core rules of power-sharing should be rapidly reformed so that Stormont coalitions become flexible and voluntary, not mandatory.

“No, the important thing here is to walk before we run,” Coveney said.

Under current rules, the largest party in each sectarian camp must jointly lead any Stormont government | Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

“I don’t think we should be rushing to change the mechanisms,” he said. “That’s sort of a five-year project. Before that, we need a five-month project to get the institutions back up and running.”

Under current rules, the largest party in each sectarian camp — for the past two decades the Democratic Unionists on the British Protestant side, and Sinn Féin on the Irish Catholic side — must jointly lead any Stormont government. Smaller compromise-minded parties are treated as optional extras.

Reflecting their dominance, Sinn Féin and the DUP wield matching powers to wreck any wider coalition. Should either party withdraw in protest, the entire government must crumble. Sinn Féin did this in 2017, the Democratic Unionists earlier this year.

The idea of removing these sectarian destruct buttons over government formation has gained popular currency following the May election of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Sinn Féin overtook the DUP for the first time — even though the Irish republicans made no numerical gains. Sinn Féin retained 27 seats in the 90-seat chamber, while the DUP slumped to 25.

By contrast the non-sectarian Alliance Party, which rejects the labels of unionist and nationalist, more than doubled its seats to 17. In a normal parliament, Alliance would be the coalition kingmaker — but at Stormont, its votes don’t matter at all.

“We need to be open to adapting and changing the Good Friday Agreement to respond to the changes in both demographics and makeup of society in Northern Ireland,” Coveney said.

Given this growth in a middle-ground alternative, he said, Northern Ireland eventually is likely to face another round of multiparty negotiations that further amend the original Good Friday formula for power-sharing. He noted that this already has happened three times under joint London-Dublin oversight in 2006, 2014 and 2020. Those post-Good Friday agreements in succession enabled, sustained and revived governments jointly led by the DUP and Sinn Féin.

Coveney expects the next round of Stormont rules reform to take three to five years of patient diplomacy between Belfast, London and Dublin. For now, he hopes an emerging London-Brussels agreement on eased protocol rules will give the DUP sufficient reassurance to resume their mandatory government seats, not to be dumped by new rules into the opposition benches.

“I don’t want to give the impression that we solve these issues by changing the rules of the peace agreement. We solve these issues by rebuilding relationships, getting people working together again,” Coveney said. “The current rules will work just fine if the parties decide to work with each other.”

Database move

In a further sign of progress in the long-running row over the protocol, Bloomberg reported Tuesday that the EU has begun testing the U.K.’s live database which tracks goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Brussels argues that access to that data is needed to ensure enforcement of its single market under the protocol, and in June it launched infringement proceedings against London in part over a lack of data-sharing on goods moving into the region.

However, while an EU official confirmed to POLITICO that the EU is already testing U.K. live databases on goods being shipped to Northern Ireland, they warned that this represents just “5 percent” of the problems with the Northern Ireland protocol being discussed by officials on both sides. The two sides are yet to agree on the precise data that will be accessible to EU officials through those databases.

Cristina Gallardo contributed reporting.

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