Ireland’s premier insisted the Northern Ireland Protocol offers many benefits and opportunities for the region as he stressed the importance of its full implementation.
Taoiseach Micheal 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.
Addressing the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly (BIPA), Martin said it is critical that those efforts are undertaken in a context where both sides have underlined their commitment to the full implementation of the new Irish Sea trading arrangements.
The protocol was agreed by the UK and EU as a way to keep the Irish border flowing freely post-Brexit.
It achieved that by creating an economic border in the Irish Sea, with new regulatory and customs processes required on trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
This has caused some disruption to trade since the start of the year.
It has also stirred unionist and loyalist anger in Northern Ireland amid concerns that the region’s place in the UK has been undermined by the arrangements.
Several unionist parties are involved in initiating legal proceedings against the government, arguing that the protocol breaches both the Act of Union and the 1998 Northern Ireland Act, which gives legislative effect to the Good Friday peace agreement.
Martin’s opening address to the BIPA came ahead of a virtual debate at Westminster on the protocol.
The debate, convened by a select committee, has been tabled after a DUP e-petition gained more than the 100,000 signatures required to secure parliamentary time to consider an issue.
While the protocol has created new processes on trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, goods moving the other way are largely unfettered.
Goods moving from Northern Ireland into the EU are also unfettered as a consequence of the region continuing to apply the bloc’s regulatory and customs rules.
Advocates of the protocol contend that Northern Ireland finds itself in an unparalleled economic position as a result, with free access to sell into the UK internal market and the EU single market.
The Taoiseach acknowledged the disruption caused by the protocol in its early weeks of operation but highlighted the advantages it could ultimately deliver.
“We are seeing changes, since the beginning of this year, on flows and supply chains between Great Britain and Ireland, and indeed between all EU countries and Great Britain,” he told the virtual gathering of British and Irish parliamentarians.
“While we will continue to work to minimise disruptions where possible, the reality is that the UK is now outside of the EU’s single market and customs union, and the flow of goods between the UK and its neighbours is now subject to controls both on the British and EU sides.
“This brings serious new complexities and challenges, but 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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
Martin told the 60th plenary session of the BIPA that Brexit would have a profound impact on the relationship between the islands.
“While, of course, we cannot replace the daily interaction and shared policy agendas that we naturally enjoyed through the European Union, we need to think afresh about how we can renew and strengthen those connections,” he said.
“We should be ambitious about what we can achieve across these islands in order to deliver real and meaningful benefits to all our people.”
The BIPA is a longstanding political initiative aimed at fostering co-operation between parliamentarians from the UK, Ireland and the British Crown dependencies.