European Commission Vice President for Interinstitutional Relations Maroš Šefčovič has told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs that an attempt to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol was a mistake, but it was corrected within three hours.

He said Article 16 was invoked as the EU grappled with securing a supply of Covid-19 vaccines.

Mr Šefčovič said the decision was made in the "intensity of the moment" as there were concerns that the EU was not getting its "fair share" of vaccines.

He added the EU did not want to block the export of vaccines but wanted to find out where they went.

Mr Šefčovič said that the commission's track record proves that it is committed to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

He was asked repeatedly by politicians about the days leading up to 29 January, when the commission signalled its intent to trigger the protocol, and who decided to invoke it.

Mr Šefčovič told Labour's Brendan Howlin that no decision was taken and that the draft proposal was "quickly, quickly corrected".

He asked that members of the committee stop engaging in the "blame game" and told them that the commission has acknowledged that a mistake was made and that it is time to "look to the future" to ensure that it does not happen again.

Fianna Fáil's Dara Calleary told Mr Šefčovič he believed him when he said that "Northern Ireland was in the hearts and the minds of the commission during negotiations".

However, Mr Calleary said that "it wasn't on the 29 January".

He told Mr Šefčovič that the committee's job is parliamentary scrutiny and that members would be remiss in their job if they did not pursue what happened in the days prior to 29 January.

Mr Calleary took issue with Mr Šefčovič's assertion that the protocol was not invoked, telling him that he was only "splitting hairs" when he said it was not activated.

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Mr Šefčovič said there was immediate contact with the Taoiseach and Minister for Foreign Affairs on the evening of 29 January and the issue around the protocol "was sorted within three hours".

He told the committee that 70% or 80% of the time, during the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations, was spent trying to find a solution in the form of the protocol and that efforts continue to find solutions to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Mr Šefčovič said that he will meet NI business leaders and civic society representatives on Thursday.

A meeting with a Brexit stakeholder group will also begin later this week, organised by Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.

Mr Šefčovič said: "We clearly want to listen; we want to learn. We need close co-operation with the UK."

He responded to Sinn Féin's John Brady that the commission was doing its utmost to "de-escalate" the situation.

"Any step forward to calm the situation - we are all for it. We are ready to engage with business leaders in Northern Ireland."

He added that Northern Ireland now operated in two markets which is a "big opportunity" for Northern Ireland.

Ruairí Ó Murchú of Sinn Féin said if the commission wanted to sell the Northern Ireland Protocol it needs to "aim above unionism" and encouraged the commission to engage with border communities against Brexit.

Mr Šefčovič said the UK authorities have been very transparent about construction of border crossing points. 

He added the British government had committed to give information regarding having IT systems operational as part of the Brexit agreement. 

Senator Vincent P Martin of the Green Party said the EU should give Northern Ireland a voice at the heart of Europe.

"Their voice is not being heard at the moment. A spectacular own goal was scored but it could have been so much worse," he said.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade said Mr Šefčovič has been "a real friend to Ireland". 

Minister Coveney said there was a real commitment from Vice-President Šefčovič and the commission as a whole, to focus on issues north and south linked to the protocol.

He said that there are "flexibilities" within the protocol to respond to genuine implementation issues that have emerged over the last six weeks.