Northern Ireland Protocol ‘a little too strict’, admits Varadkar

Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, discussing the Northern Ireland Protocol at an industrial relations conference in Dublin on Thursday - Michelle Devane/PA
Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, discussing the Northern Ireland Protocol at an industrial relations conference in Dublin on Thursday - Michelle Devane/PA

The Northern Ireland Protocol is a “little too strict”, Ireland’s deputy prime minister has admitted, amid hopes of a deal with the EU.

Leo Varadkar said the Protocol was working, despite not being fully implemented, and suggested there may be "further flexibility for some changes".

He added that a "window of opportunity" now exists for agreement to be reached between the EU and the UK.

Officials on both sides are negotiating on the Protocol in technical talks, the European Commission said earlier this week.

Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign affairs minister, and James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, are meeting in London on Thursday, ahead of Mr Coveney co-chairing a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference with Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland Secretary, on Friday.

Mr Coveney has previously said he does not believe an agreement can be reached before Oct 28, after which fresh elections will be triggered in Northern Ireland, but that both sides can make “significant progress on some of the issues”.

Changes 'would hopefully make it acceptable to all'

Speaking in Dublin, Mr Varadkar said: "We should not forget that the Protocol is working. It was designed to prevent a hard border between north and south, and there is no hard border between north and south.

"It was designed to protect the integrity of the Single Market and it has, and also the Northern Ireland economy is outperforming the rest of the UK economically.

"But one thing that I would concede is that perhaps the Protocol, as it was originally designed, was a little too strict.

"The Protocol has not been fully implemented and yet it is still working.

"I think that, you know, demonstrates that there is some room for further flexibility for some changes that hopefully would make it acceptable to all sides."

The Protocol was agreed by the UK and EU as part of the Withdrawal Agreement and sought to avoid a hard border with Ireland post-Brexit.

But the arrangements have created trade barriers on goods being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

The DUP is currently blocking the formation of a power-sharing executive in Belfast in protest at the Protocol, which it says has erected a political border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Agreement would be 'very beneficial'

On Thursday, there were reports that ministers were keen to “accelerate” talks to avoid new elections and a potential trade war with the EU.

The newspaper said the UK could give ground and allow the European Court of Justice to be involved in policing the Protocol, while the EU could agree to allow more goods to pass from Great Britain to Northern Ireland without checks.

The bloc could also move from its current position that some products like chilled meats cannot pass into Northern Ireland at all.

Mr Varadkar said an agreement would be "very beneficial", as it would allow for the restoration of power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

Stormont collapsed earlier this year amid a row over the Protocol and has not returned, despite elections in May.

Speaking after an industrial relations conference at University College Dublin, Mr Varadkar also told reporters: "There is a window of opportunity now over the next couple of weeks to see if we can come to an agreement on the Protocol.

"That would be very beneficial for Ireland and Northern Ireland because it would allow us to get the executive up and running, and could be helpful for Britain as well in economic terms."

Legislation to enable the Government to effectively tear up parts of the Protocol is to return to Westminster on Oct 11.

The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill has already cleared the House of Commons and will be debated at second reading by the House of Lords next week.