Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said it was a mistake by the European Commission to signal its intention to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, in response to the row with AstraZeneca over the supply of vaccines.

Speaking to RTÉ News, Mr Martin said lessons have to be learned, and said any damage done can be repaired.

Mr Martin rejected assertions by DUP leader Arlene Foster that the NI protocol is unworkable. Mrs Foster has called on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to replace the protocol.

Mr Martin said he had spoken to Mr Johnson last night, after the European Commission signalled the article would be triggered.

He also said he had several conversations over the course of the night with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and that dialogue would continue to ensure lessons are learned.

He also confirmed that the Irish Government did not have prior notice of the European Commission's intentions.  

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has said damage and unnecessary tension has been caused in Northern Ireland by the European Commission's move to trigger an emergency brake on the Northern Irish Protocol.

Mr Coveney said the decision to trigger Article 16 was a "careless mistake" which was quickly reversed when the Irish Government raised concerns.

However, he said it should not have happened and it gave ammunition to those who have opposed and the protocol and who seek to undermine it.

He said more consultation should have been had beforehand.

Mr Coveney said Article 16 is an emergency mechanism that clearly should not be triggered unless there is a very high threshold.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Arlene Foster said the EU's announcement was an "absolutely incredible act of hostility towards those of us in Northern Ireland".

She added: "It's absolutely disgraceful and I have to say the Prime Minister now needs to act very quickly to deal with the real trade flows that are being disrupted between Great Britain and Northern Ireland."

The EU caught many, including the Irish Government, by surprise by announcing that it planned to trigger Article 16 as part of its efforts to bring tighter controls on Covid vaccines leaving the EU, and to ensure Northern Ireland would not become a backdoor to allow the flow of vaccines from the EU to Britain.

The move prompted a strong response from the Government around concerns about what this would mean for the long-term integrity of the Northern Ireland protocol.

After a number of discussions between Taoiseach Micheál Martin and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the EU issued a statement late last night saying that it will ensure the protocol will not be affected by the new version of its vaccines export control regulations, which are due to be published today.

The Taoiseach said he welcomed the development given the many challenges faced in tackling Covid-19.


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Mrs Foster also reiterated calls for Mr Johnson to enact Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol over the shortage of some food.

"We've been asking the PM to deal with the flow problems and, indeed since January 1st, we've been trying to manage along with the Government the many, many difficulties that have arisen between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and there are actions he could take immediately," she said.

"There is great unrest and great tension within the community here in Northern Ireland so this protocol that was meant to bring about peace and harmony in Northern Ireland is doing quite the reverse.

Arlene Foster described the EU plan as an act of hostility

"The protocol is unworkable, let's be very clear about that, and we need to see it replaced because otherwise there is going to be real difficulties here in Northern Ireland."

Pressed whether that would be in breach of an international treaty, she said: "Well it didn't seem to bother the European Union yesterday when they breached the treaty in terms of their embarrassment around their vaccine procurement."

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill called for "cool heads" and solidarity, saying both the EU and the British government need to honour and implement their agreements.

The Sinn Féin deputy leader said: "I have spoken to the Irish Government and expressed my serious concerns that the EU did not consult with the political administrations on this island, before moving to trigger Article 16.

"This unilateral action was clearly unwise, ill-judged and totally unnecessary. I welcome the fact the decision has now been reversed."

She said it has caused political harm, adding: "It has given those shameless Brexiteers now opposed to the consequences of their own actions, the opportunity of using it to their advantage."

Ms O’Neill added: "However the Irish protocol while imperfect must be preserved.

"The protocol exists as a solution to avoid a hard border on the island, thereby enabling the all-island economy and Good Friday Agreement to be protected."

Minister for European Affairs Thomas Byrne said the European Commission made a mistake in seeking to trigger Article 16.

He said the issue was quickly rectified once the Taoiseach explained it could become "deeply politically contentious".

Speaking on Newstalk radio, Mr Byrne said that "clearly and rightly" the EU has an issue with AstraZeneca and wants to make sure that the vaccine destined for the European market is not being exported out of the EU.

He said Article 16 is intended to be used in extreme circumstances, but it is akin to a standard provision in trade agreements across the world.

Mr Byrne said the provision has "a different political resonance in Northern Ireland and maybe this wasn't fully appreciated" by those who drafted it, adding it was too early to tell if that was the case.

He said that the matter was "a lesson to us all" that it is a complicated provision designed to bring the best of both worlds to the communities of Northern Ireland.

Additional reporting PA, Mary Regan