The Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said there could be freer flowing trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland under the Protocol if the UK agreed to align more closely to EU food safety and animal and plant health standards.

A veterinary agreement between both sides, or some form of "equivalence" arrangement, could lower trade barriers in areas where the UK is demanding flexibility from the European Commission, such as seed potatoes, seeds, potted plants, and pets, he said.

Speaking following a meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers in Brussels, Mr Coveney said: "In some of those cases the UK government has the capacity to facilitate that change if they want to agree to a different approach when it comes to equivalence of standards, for example.

"So, if we had equivalence in terms of veterinary standards and SPS [sanitary and phytosanitary rules], that would create fewer barriers to free flowing trade."

He said that many Northern Ireland businesses were positively disposed to such an idea.

Mr Coveney also said the EU was prepared to be "flexible" and "generous" in easing the burden of the Protocol on Northern Ireland businesses, but the UK had to follow through on its commitments to the EU last December, such as a promise to give EU observers real time access to customs data, and to provide data on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.

"When the EU made compromises in a pragmatic way to try to get agreement on implementation they expected that the British government would follow through on those commitments," he told reporters.

Asked about the joint unionist legal action to seek to overturn the Northern Ireland Protocol, Mr Coveney said "people had a right" to take legal challenges. However, the Protocol was now part of international law.

"Of course, people have a right to legally challenge anything they want to, but you know this has been voted on in the British Parliament.  It's part of an international treaty now, and I think we have an obligation to be honest with people. 

"The protocol is here to stay."

Mr Coveney said the European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefcovic and the UK cabinet office minister Michael Gove had been working to find pragmatic solutions, with input from the Irish government.

"But let's not forget the context here. Brexit and the decisions around Brexit are what are causing the disruption here. The Protocol was put in place to try to limit the disruption where possible, and it was signed up to by all sides and designed by both the British government and the EU working together, and we have an obligation now to try and make sure that it works for everybody," he said.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences


Latest Brexit stories


Earlier, the Taoiseach has insisted the Northern Ireland Protocol offers many benefits and opportunities for the region as he stressed the importance of its full implementation.

Addressing the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly (BIPA), Micheál Martin welcomed efforts by the UK and EU to find ways to resolve some of the trading problems created by the protocol since it came into force at the start of the year.

He said it was critical those efforts were being undertaken in a context where both sides had underlined their commitment to the full implementation of the new Irish Sea trading arrangements.

"There is no version of Brexit that does not mean change, and change on this scale, by its very nature, can be difficult and challenging - especially in Northern Ireland, where the Executive has been operating for little over a year following a long hiatus, and where there are many other important challenges on the agenda," he told the virtual plenary session of the BIPA.

"And that is why, as we navigate our way through these changes, I warmly welcome the work between Brussels and London to move forward and to find ways of easing implementation.

"Critically, this is being done in a context where both sides have underlined their commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and the full implementation of the protocol.

"There are many benefits and opportunities inherent in the protocol for Northern Ireland and so it is right that we all work closely together to ensure that the protocol works and that disruption is minimised to the greatest extent possible."

The Taoiseach said it is "in all our interests" to see a close and stable EU/UK relationship into the future.

Mr Martin said this is "built on shared values" and "strong, historical and economic ties".

He said Ireland's commitment to Europe is "unwavering".

"It is my regret that the United Kingdom is no longer there with us", he said. "And in this new context, we will work now to enhance and strengthen our bilateral relationship."

Mr Martin said that while we cannot replace the "daily interaction and shared policy agendas" that we naturally enjoy through the European Union, we must "think afresh" about how we can renew and strengthen those connections.

"We should be ambitious about what we can deliver across these islands in order to deliver real and meaningful benefits to all of our people", he said.

"I'm very pleased that Prime Minister Johnson and I share an ambition to move forward with this new agenda, to reset and refresh our cooperation in the post Brexit context." 

Mr Martin said we will need to develop structures to underpin this engagement, with regular meetings by heads of government at ministerial and senior official levels in order to build relationships and deliver on agreed programmes of work.

He said the Covid-19 pandemic has had "a profound affect on us all" and has underlined the importance and benefit of cooperation in tackling this "unprecedented challenge".

He said they have seen changes since the beginning of this year on flows and supply chains between Great Britain and Ireland, and between all European Union countries and Great Britain, but that Britain is and will remain a key trading partner and an important market for Ireland.

"It is in all of our interests to help our businesses manage this change", Mr Martin said. "We all recognise in particular the need to support our small and medium sized enterprises, which provide so much employment across all jurisdictions on these islands."

He said there is "no version of Brexit" that does not mean change.

"And change on this scale, by its very nature, can be difficult and challenging - especially in Northern Ireland, where the Executive has been operating for little over a year following a long hiatus, and where there are many other important challenges on the agenda." 

The Taoiseach went on to say that as we "navigate our way through these changes", he welcomes the work between Brussels and London to move forward and to find ways of easing implementation.

"Critically, this is being done in a context where both sides have underlined their commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and the full implementation of the protocol", Mr Martin said.

"There are many benefits and opportunities inherent in the protocol for Northern Ireland, and so it is right that we all work closely together to ensure that the protocol works and that disruption is minimised to the greatest extent possible."

He said that since the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement, we have witnessed the benefits of working together to build and sustain relationships.

He said the shared island initiative is a "key priority" for the Government in deepening and nurturing relationships at all levels in the years ahead, and he has had "constructive engagement" with Mr Johnson.

He said that while we have made "immense progress" through the framework of the Good Friday Agreement, it is "clear that we need to do more" in order to achieve a full reconciliation between all communities and traditions on this island.

"Reconciliation is the core goal of the Good Friday Agreement", Mr Martin said. "And it is of fundamental importance for our future on this island."

He said the UK's departure from the EU is a "moment of dramatic and profound change" that requires us to rethink the British-Irish relationship.

He said he remains ambitious about what we can achieve by working together, and he is "convinced" that we can move forward in a "mutual respect and close partnership".

European Commission 'fully committed' to GFA

Meanwhile, the European Commission has said it is "fully committed" to the Good Friday Agreement and to the proper implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Asked for its response to the legal action supported by the main unionist parties and a number of British politicians against the Protocol, on the basis that it contravenes both the 1800 Act of Union and the Good Friday Agreement, Commission spokesman Dan Ferrie said the Protocol was about "protecting the gains of the peace process, protecting and maintaining stability, avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, and importantly, minimising the impact of brexit on the everyday lives of communities North and South of the border,"

Mr Ferrie referred to the joint statement by the co-chairs of the EU/UK Joint Committee, Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic and UK Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, on 11 February, in which they committed to "spare no effort" to implement the flexibilities agreed by both sides on how the Protocol should apply in Northern Ireland on December 17.

He also referred to round table meetings Mr Sefcovic held last week with Northern Ireland business groups and civil society, "all of which showed quite constructive, solution driven discussions and outcomes."

Mr Ferrie added a "constructive" and "solutions driven" attitude would be brought to a meeting of the technical level  Specialised Committee tomorrow, and the Joint Committee on Wednesday.

A senior member of the European Parliament has said there will be no "thorough review" or the Protocol, nor any amendments to it.

However, in response to the legal action taken by the DUP and others, German MEP David McAllister, chair of the Parliament's UK Co-ordination Group, said that "flexible" and "pragmatic" solutions to some of the issues around the Protocol should be found, but not at the expense of the principles at the heart of the Protocol.

These, he said, where "to avoid a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, to enable the true functioning of the all-island economy and safeguarding the Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions, and to ensure the integrity of our single market for goods, along with all the guarantees it offers in terms of consumer protection, public and animal health."

The centre-right MEP, who is also chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said: "The Protocol, in the end, was the issue of squaring the circle [of Brexit and the island of Ireland] and this was a compromise that was found and accepted by both sides." 

He added: "We all know this Protocol was a compromise. It was conceived as a squaring of the circle and it was negotiated under high political pressure. But what is important for us: we want to work for practical solutions. We will continue to explore all flexibilities available under the applicable EU rules and within the framework of the Protocol."

Mr McAllister said the European Parliament would work with the European Commission and member states "in the next weeks" to look at ways to reconcile the need for practical solutions and the EU's principles underpinning the Protocol.

"We have always said that the EU 26 ... stand firm with the Republic of Ireland on this issue," he said.
 
"It's important now that both sides continue to de-escalate, that we calm tensions." 

Mr McAllister was speaking at a virtual news conference on the impact of Brexit on Ireland and the Netherlands, organised by the European Parliament office in Dublin.

Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews told the news conference that there was "politics" behind the legal action in advance of next year's Northern Ireland Assembly elections, adding that the DUP's poll numbers had fallen from below 30% to 20%.

He said the voice of Northern Ireland would have to be listened to when it came to any new EU legislation which might have an impact in the future.

However, he added: "It is difficult to be sympathetic to the DUP in circumstances where they campaigned for Brexit in the first place, being the only political party in Northern Ireland to do so, and also the fact that they voted three times against [prime minister] Theresa May's all UK customs backstop, which would have avoided all the problems."

He added: "It is astonishing that the 1800 Act of Union is cited in support of the [DUP's legal] case."  

Additional reporting Karin Carthy