The Taoiseach has said there is “no substitute” for “substantive, serious negotiations” between the EU and the UK to resolve issues around the Northern Ireland protocol.
Micheál Martin also called for the restoration of the North’s power-sharing institutions and said there should be “parallel discussions” which would allow the restoration of a functioning Assembly and Executive while negotiations on the protocol continued between the EU and the UK.
Speaking to reporters in Belfast on Friday following meetings with political and business leaders, he was also deeply critical of legislation introduced by the UK government this week to deal with the legacy of the Troubles which will offer a conditional amnesty to perpetrators deemed to have co- operated with a new information recovery body and said he was “fundamentally very much opposed” to the proposals.
The proposed legislation created “essentially the guts of an amnesty for people who committed terrible crimes, irrespective of whether they were security forces or members of various paramilitary groups who committed terrible crimes” and “for many of those paramilitary groups, this is literally a get -out-of-jail legislation from any further investigation”, Mr Martin said.
“It’s a plan that needs significant examination, the full implications. I don’t believe are fully understood by many involved,” he added.
“It’s a unilateral measure again and I have concerns about the unilateral strain within the current British government towards aspects of the Good Friday Agreement.”
The North remains without a functioning Assembly or Executive after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) blocked the appointment of a speaker following this month’s Assembly elections as part of its protest against the Northern Ireland protocol.
‘No sticking plaster’
In a further sign that there will be no swift remedy to the deadlock, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson reiterated his call to see the detail of proposed legislation announced by the UK to unilaterally scrap parts of the protocol before making a decision on whether it would re- enter Stormont.
Speaking after his party’s meeting with the Taoiseach on Friday, Mr Donaldson said: “We are not interested in a sticking plaster approach, or tinkering around the edges, it has to be fundamental change which respects Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market and nothing short of that will satisfy.”
Mr Martin said he believed the issues around the protocol could be resolved but said the UK government kept moving the goalposts regarding its position.
“On the UK Government side, we haven’t quite got a clear landing zone. The goalposts do keep moving in that respect,” Mr Martin said.
“What was produced this week by the UK Government again indicates a widening of the picture in respect of resolving the issues of the protocol.”
He said the EU “wants to resolve this” and wanted to engage in “meaningful negotiations” with the UK government and did not accept the proposition that the EU had not been flexible.
Mr Martin was speaking as the British ambassador to Ireland Paul Johnston justified his government’s stance on the basis that “times have changed” since the protocol was agreed was in 2019. The protocol is part of the EU-UK Brexit deal to allows goods to pass freely between Northern Ireland in the UK and the Republic of Ireland in the EU.
Mr Johnston told reporters in Dublin: “The world itself has changed in the intervening period. We now face a cost of living crisis, we’ve had Covid, we’ve had a lot of factors which are relevant but which weren’t there at the time,” he said
“I think although you hear from the Commission ‘pacta sunt servanda’ – agreements need to be respected – I think there’s also a case of ‘tempora mutantur’ – the times change and we change with them.”
During his visit to Belfast on Friday, the Taoiseach met the leaders of Sinn Féin, the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, and spoke virtually with the Alliance leader on Thursday. He also met members of the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group.
The Taoiseach said all parties had “indicated a desire to have the Assembly back up and running” and had said they were “willing to abide by the result” of the election.
The DUP, he said, “were clear that they have no difficulty in taking up the Deputy First Minister position but they have issues with the protocol.”
Mr Donaldson said his party had “spelled it out very clearly to him the problems with the protocol, the harm it is doing to Northern Ireland and that we need a solution, we need decisive action to deal with these problems.”
Sinn Féin’s Northern leader Michelle O’Neill accused the DUP of “denying democracy” and said “there are parties here that want to be in Government together, there are parties that want to be in the executive but, unfortunately, the DUP, sponsored by the British government, are holding back all of that progress and preventing us from being able to start to put money in people’s pockets.”
Earlier on Friday morning Mr Martin said the UK government had moved “too far in a unilateral way” over its approach to the Northern Ireland protocol, which was not in accordance with the spirit of the Belfast Agreement.
He told the BBC: “I spoke to Boris Johnson and I have to nail this, this idea that somehow the European Union is being inflexible on this is just not the truth, it doesn’t stack up.”
Mr Martin added there cannot be a situation where one political party is refusing to allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to meet, saying it is “unheard of in a democratic world”.
On the protocol, the Taoiseach said: “What has happened now is a certain unilateralism on behalf of the British government saying ‘our way or no way’ and you don’t negotiate with the European Union on that basis, particularly when you have signed off on the agreement that you now don’t like.
“Professional, serious negotiations between the United Kingdom government and the European Union is the only way to resolve this.”
Speaking after his meeting with Mr Martin, Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said he proposed a “landing zone” solution to the Taoiseach over issues with the protocol.
Mr Beattie said: “There is no requirement on checks on goods that come from Great Britain to Northern Ireland if they are staying in Northern Ireland. If they are going on to the EU single market then they can be checked, and all we need to do is make sure that the scaffolding and the architecture is put in place to make sure that that can happen.
“That is the landing zone and we believe that landing zone will get people back into government. We asked the Taoiseach to make representations to the European Union to that effect.”