Ongoing tensions because of Brexit means the relationship between Ireland and the UK is “strained, but it can be repaired”, Leo Varadkar has said.
Speaking at a virtual event on the impact of Brexit on Thursday, Mr Varadkar said Brexit, as a policy, was always going to be disruptive. And it was always going to have a disproportionate impact on the island of Ireland.
“But what we have seen on the streets of Northern Ireland in recent weeks is really concerning,” he said.
“We understand the genuinely held concerns of people in the protestant, loyalist and unionist community who fear divergence from the rest of the UK. We never wanted any trade barriers North/South, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain or between Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland,” he said while addressing a virtual Brexit conference co-hosted by the European Movement Ireland and the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.
Mr Varadkar said this is why Dublin was against Brexit. “It’s why we advocated the UK staying in the Single Market and/or Customs Union. It’s why when that was not possible we negotiated a Single Customs Territory or “the backstop”. The rejection of these gave rise to the Protocol,” he said. “Now, we just want to make it work.”
The Irish Government will continue to advocate for flexibility, common sense and generosity in terms of solutions, he said, adding that any disruption to trade, human movement or animal movement between Northern Ireland and Great Britain should be minimised.
In a warning to Downing Street, he said the Irish Government cannot support anything that would undermine the integrity of the single market. And no change can be made to the EU/UK treaty unilaterally. It can only be by agreement in Brussels, London and Dublin and, ideally, Belfast, he said.
“Unilateral action won’t work so we need agreed solutions. I believe the way forward is through dialogue — through the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and the EU-UK Joint Committee and Specialised Committees under the agreed framework,” he said.
The Protocol was hard-won and designed to ensure that the disruption for Northern Ireland is the least it could be — and preserves the delicate balance that the Good Friday Agreement established, Mr Varadkar said.
The Irish Government does not want to see disruption to the Northern Ireland economy or to the flow of goods between it and Great Britain, he added.
He also said it should be remembered the Protocol is not just about trade — it’s about protecting the rights of citizens in Northern Ireland. And it’s also up to the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide, whether it wants to disapply it and no majority of any form exists, at present, for that, he added.
“I don’t think that the next assembly elections will change that reality but of course that remains to be seen,” he added.
He also said that while Ireland remains overwhelmingly pro-European recent events have placed a strain on our relationship with the EU.
“The Irish people have always been and will remain pro-European. But it has not always been a relationship that has always been plain sailing. There have been less-positive experiences. Certainly, the EU/IMF/ECB Troika experience strained relations and Irish attitudes toward the EU,” he said.
He also cited referendum defeats linked to concerns about the diminution of our sovereignty and military neutrality as other negatives on Ireland’s relationship with Europe.
He said it is also a relationship that is undergoing profound change.
“We are now a net contributor and that will inevitably change how we look at things. Also, any shift towards protectionism or competence creep will concern us. And, of course, the impact of Brexit is profound and will forever change the web of relationships across these islands and Europe,” the Tánaiste said.
In the context of Brexit, Mr Varadkar said Ireland was deeply grateful for the solidarity of our EU neighbours, including Germany and Chancellor Merkel throughout the Brexit negotiating period.
Mr Varadkar said the EU without the UK is a different place and is weaker and poorer without it as a member.
It would be foolish to see the UK as a competitor and to discount its role as an ally, he said.
Ideally, Ireland would partner with the UK on as many of these global issues as possible. “I’m not naïve to think things can carry on just as they used to, but politically it makes sense to have a common approach on as many of these issues as possible,” he said.