Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said there is pressure on the EU and UK to come up with solutions to the Northern Ireland Protocol tensions by June, ahead of the loyalist marching season.

Speaking after a meeting with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, Mr Coveney said: "The last thing we want to see is… moving into a marching season this summer, without Covid-19 restrictions keeping people in their homes, without many of these issues resolved politically.

"So, I think there is a pressure that we find a way to come up with solutions by some point in June, and I think the Commission is very much aware of that and I'm sure the British government is too."

He added: "It's not for me as an Irish minister to be setting deadlines. My role in this is to work as part of the EU, but also to reach out to colleagues in London as well, and of course in Belfast, to find a sensible, pragmatic way forward here that everyone can live with."

Mr Coveney said both sides were discussing a number of ideas, and that there could be a meeting of the EU-UK Joint Committee, which implements the Protocol, in the first week of June.

This would be co-chaired by Mr Sefcovic and his UK counterpart David Frost, and, he suggested, it could take place the same week as the first Partnership Council meeting, which brings both sides together to implement the recently-ratified EU-UK future relationship treaty.

Mr Coveney said he hoped a Joint Committee meeting could pave the way to a roadmap to manage and implement the Northern Ireland Protocol.

He also said both sides would have to work together "technically, legally and politically" if they were to reach some kind of joint EU-UK veterinary agreement that would "reduce the need for the majority of inspections at ports in Northern Ireland."


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European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic

The European Commission has said that such a veterinary agreement would require the UK to align, even temporarily, with EU food safety and animal health rules, so as to do away with the vast majority of checks and controls on the Irish Sea, as required by the Protocol.

However, the UK has ruled out aligning with EU standards and instead has demanded an "equivalence" agreement, which would measure outcomes rather than require strict alignment with the EU's food safety regime.

Mr Coveney told RTÉ News: "The British position has been clear for many months that they would like to see equivalence of standards recognised in the UK and the EU's position is equally firm and clear that they can't do that legally without setting a precedent for a whole load of other third countries that the EU has a relationship with, so instead what they want is alignment with EU rules on sanctuary and phytosanitary veterinary standards."

Mr Coveney said that if a solution was to be found, both sides may have to step back from their positions.

"There is going to be a need for a solution that is somewhat different to both of those purist positions if you like, and I think that's what technical teams are looking at the moment, and whether it's possible to put that together. We'll have to wait and see," he said.

He added: "There are various ideas being discussed, but it isn't a straightforward issue and a lot of countries in the EU are watching how the Commission resolves this because of course the most important issue for the EU is that we protect the integrity of our own single market and the member states within it."