Loyalists who are opposed to the Northern Ireland Protocol “haven’t got a clue” about how it works, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said.
Speaking at an event hosted by the Brexit Institute at Dublin City University (DCU) on Thursday, Mr Ahern said they view the arrangements as being solely about identity.
Unionist politicians hit out at the comments on Thursday evening.
The former Taoiseach said the contentious post-Brexit arrangements are not properly understood by the community, and viewed as a backdoor to a united Ireland.
He said: “I spend a lot of my life still in the North. The reality is in East Belfast and in the ghettos and in the areas where you’re likely to get trouble, is that people haven’t got a clue about the protocol, not a clue.
“They see it as identity.
“They see it as a road to the Dublin Government taking over again and this is a pathway to that. That’s the hard reality.”
The protocol was designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, by introducing controls in the Irish Sea on goods travelling between Britain and Northern Ireland.
The EU and the UK remain deadlocked in negotiations over its implementation, with the new barriers to east/west trade creating tensions in some loyalist and unionist communities.
Mr Ahern, a former Fianna Fáil leader and one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement, said the idea that Protocol is about trade “just passes them by”.
He added: “In fact they’re not interested. It’s seen as a trick by the south to move the border from across the island, and to put it down the Irish Sea, as a trap for government.
“That’s how they see it. Even those who you might consider to be a bit more intelligent and articulate. That is the difficulty.”
Mr Ahern said negotiations over the protocol are made more difficult by this view.
He said: “We’re trying to do two things. We’re trying to solve the difficulties of medicine and meats and everything else in the protocol.
“But there’s another issue in the protocol, and that’s what is in the head and the ideological one, and that’s a far more difficult one to deal with.
“(DUP leader) Jeffrey Donaldson well understands how we might get over the detail, and the reason he keeps on about the other issue is because he’s trying to – which I don’t blame him for – he’s trying to serve the loyalist community as well.”
DUP MP for East Belfast Gavin Robinson called on Mr Ahern to apologise for his comments.
“To associate East Belfast with a ghetto and suggest loyalists are not able to understand the protocol is demeaning and degrading,” he said.
“People in my constituency who can’t get their Amazon parcels from another part of the United Kingdom well understand the impact of the protocol.
“Rather than belittling those who oppose the protocol, Bertie Ahern should seek to understand why not a single elected unionist in Northern Ireland supports the protocol.
“As a man who was central to the Belfast Agreement being negotiated, Bertie should be honest in recognising that the protocol does alter Northern Ireland’s status within the United Kingdom single market without any consent from people living here.”
Senior DUP MLA Diane Dodds was also critical.
In a post on Twitter, she said: “Coming from the Dublin elite the snide comments in this piece about loyalist communities are despicable.”
Speaking earlier, Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the EU had offered a comprehensive package to the UK, aimed at easing the implication of the Protocol.
He said: “This package represented a significant compromise for the EU.
“The lack of any evident reciprocal willingness to compromise from our UK partners to date has been deeply disappointing.
“The protocol was agreed by Lord Frost and Prime Minister Johnson, approved by this British government and ratified by the current UK Parliament.
“They have a duty to deliver on their commitments.
“It is very important we do not lose sight of the goal here, ensuring an outcome that is best for the people of Northern Ireland.”