Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said all the discussions he has had with British prime minister Boris Johnson about the Brexit protocol have concerned “sausages getting to Northern Ireland” and never about the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
Asked if the EU Commission might be willing to concede its position on the ECJ relinquishing some of its oversight role, Mr Martin said the court had never formed part of the discussions with Mr Johnson around the Northern Irish protocol or the related political difficulties that arose for the British government.
“The main sticking point all along on the ground was around the free flow of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, ” said Mr Martin.
“Even with the British PM, in the discussions I have with him in respect of Northern Ireland, it was, emotively, people talking about the sausages getting to Northern Ireland and so on.
“You know what, the sausages can now get to Northern Ireland. I don’t want to be facetious about it but the bottom line is we got over that too,” he said.
He said that the free flow of goods, medicines, a simplified system for testing animals, were all the key issues.
Turning to the question of the role of the ECJ and governance, Mr Martin said: “Access to the EU market is the big prize here and it is a big prize. Nowhere else in the world are we getting this unique solution.
“Obviously in the context of the European single market, the governance is the ECJ and I can’t see that changing.”
Asked if it was disingenuous to raise the issue of the ECJ now, Mr Martin said different issues had been raised in different times.
“I’m in solution mode. The EU Commission is in solution mode. The United Kingdom government needs to be in solution mode. A process needs to start. If we put the people of Northern Ireland first, that’s the litmus test for everybody.
Mr Martin said the last meeting he had with Mr Johnson had suggested to him the British prime minister was also in solution mode.
“I’m in solution mode and not in commentary mode. The British Government has pleaded it did not fully understand the implications of the protocol or the withdrawal agreement.
“I think engagement should now commence. There’s a time line there this weekend,” he said.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Mr Donaldson said “short-term fixes” would not solve the problems and what was needed was a “sustainable solution which removes the Irish Sea border and restores our place within the United Kingdom.”
Mr Sefcovic is to meet virtually with the leaders of the five parties in the Northern Executive on Thursday.
Speaking after their meeting on Thursday morning, Mr Donaldson said there had been a “useful and honest” discussion and he “welcomed the change of heart in Brussels with the decision to renegotiate” but the forthcoming negotiations “must not be a missed opportunity.”
Following his meeting with Mr Sefcovic the Ulster Unionist leader, Doug Beattie, also called for a “permanent and lasting” solution and said the proposals from the EU did not deal with some of the “core issues”.
He also said discussions must include “important conversations” around the proposals contained in the UK’s command paper.
The EU offered on Wednesday to make changes to the rules that would scrap checks and a large volume of paperwork on goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain.
Their proposals also include allowing the distribution of medicines made in Britain in the North and to give people, businesses and politicians in Northern Ireland a say in how the trading rules are implemented.
‘Not a huge surprise’
The response of Mr Donaldson to EU plans on the Northern Ireland protocol was “not a huge surprise” according to the Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.
There was a sense within the unionist community that the protocol would have an impact on their sense of identity, so he understood why the response had been cautious and not as fulsome as he would have liked, he told Newstalk Breakfast.
The UK response had been “lukewarm” , he added, but the EU position was that the proposals were not “take it or leave it”, but were a basis for negotiation.
There had to be a way to make progress and find solutions to the protocol, he said. Otherwise the consequences would be significant and negative for everybody.
When asked about a report in The Irish Times about a senior Government official who referred to the Conservative administration in Westminster as “vandals”, Mr Coveney said such language was not helpful.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the DUP does “not speak for the vast majority of people in the North”.
“What is being proposed by Maros Sefcovic is workable and resolves the problems with the protocol.
“I didn’t hear one unionist mention the ECJ. People need to decide, do they want good order? Or do they want a dog’s dinner?
“Are the people in the Glens of Antrim losing sleep because of the ECJ? And the answer is no.”
‘Gone to limits’
It comes as the bloc’s ambassador to the UK said the EU has gone to the limits of what it can do to resolve the problems of post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland.
The British government welcomed the announcement on Wednesday night, signalling that it wants “intensive talks” to follow the EU’s proposals.
At the same time, however, a government spokesman said there has to to be “significant changes” to the protocol in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement if there is to be a “durable settlement”.
But speaking on BBC2’s Newsnight, ambassador Joao Vale de Almeida said Brussels has gone the “extra mile” and cannot go any further.
“Today we went to the limits of what we can do to address the problems of Northern Ireland because we care for Northern Ireland. These problems were caused by Brexit,” he said.
He stressed that the EU cannot accede to a key British demand to remove the role of the European Court of Justice in overseeing the protocol.
“There is no single market without the European Court of Justice. It’s the referee of the single market,” he said.
In a statement, a British government spokesman said of the EU proposals: “We are studying the detail and will of course look at them seriously and constructively.
“The next step should be intensive talks on both our sets of proposals, rapidly conducted, to determine whether there is common ground to find a solution.
“Significant changes which tackle the fundamental issues at the heart of the protocol, including governance, must be made if we are to agree a durable settlement which commands support in Northern Ireland.”
On Wednesday evening, the EU’s proposals were welcomed by Irish political leaders, with Taoiseach Micheál Martin describing them as “the obvious way forward and the obvious way out of the issues”.
Industry figures in the North said it was clear that the commission had taken their suggestions on board. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the ideas “go further than many expected”, while UUP leader Doug Beattie said the EU “has moved significantly”.
The scaled-back checking regime proposed by the EU would also remove the prospect of certain British produce, including Cumberland sausages, being banned from export to the region.
The EU plan also includes a 50 per cent reduction in customs paperwork required to move products into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
In return, the trading bloc has asked for safeguards to be implemented to provide extra assurances that products said to be destined for Northern Ireland do not end up crossing the Irish Border.
Those include labelling of certain products, making clear they are for sale in the UK only, and enhanced monitoring of supply chain movements and access to real-time trade flow information.
Mr Sefcovic said the bloc has put in a lot of hard work to come up with an “alternative model” for implementing the protocol.
“We have explored every possible angle of the protocol and, at times, went beyond current EU law,” he told a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday.
While the range of measures would go some way to reducing everyday friction on trade caused by the protocol, they do not address the UK demand over the role of the ECJ.
UK Brexit minister David Frost has made clear the removal of the court’s oversight function in policing the protocol is a red line for the Government if a compromise deal is to be struck.
Under the terms of the protocol, which was agreed by the UK and EU as part of the 2020 Withdrawal Agreement, the ECJ would be the final arbitrator in any future trade dispute between the two parties on the operation of the protocol.
The UK now wants to remove that provision and replace it with an independent arbitration process.
The European Commission has insisted it will not move on the ECJ issue.
Mr Frost has warned that the UK could move to suspend parts of the protocol, by triggering the Article 16 mechanism, if an acceptable compromise cannot be reached. – Additional reporting by PA