The Irish Government is open to the extension of a grace period for the Northern Ireland Protocol to resolve a row over customs check at the border, the country’s foreign minister has said.
Simon Coveney said his Government could accept “modest extensions” to the period but insisted there could be no renegotiation of the terms of the protocol, which governs trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland after the end of the Brexit transition period.
Some EU customs checks, which will eventually take place at the Irish Sea border, have been temporarily relaxed to allow for the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Following loyalist threats against port officials in Belfast and Larne, Michael Gove has called on the European Commission to extend the grace period to allow border issues to be resolved.
Mr Coveney appeared open to the idea but did not signal whether he would accept Mr Gove’s proposed extension to January 2023.
“We need to try to find accommodation for each other here that can reduce tensions in Northern Ireland, can respond to legitimate concerns, regardless of who’s raising them, so that we can show that the protocol can be flexible when needed,” Mr Coveney told RTE Radio One.
“But at the same time that is not a renegotiation of the protocol, it’s about using the protocol as it is now and flexibilities within it.
“I would be open to advocating for modest extensions of grace periods when appropriate to try to, first of all, reassure people that we’re listening to them in Northern Ireland, because we are, and then, secondly, so that we can ensure that businesses can operate as best they can under the protocol.
“But that’s not the same thing as scrapping the protocol and it’s important to make a strong distinction between the two.”
Tensions over the Irish border issue were exacerbated last month by the EU’s suggestion that it could trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to block vaccines entering Northern Ireland from the Republic, which remains in the EU.
The move would have effectively imposed a hard border on the island of Ireland, which both the UK and EU have sought to avoid during Brexit negotiations.
Officials quickly backtracked and withdrew the suggestion. Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, admitted it was an error.
“We make mistakes every day. We learn every day,” she said.
“That corona pandemic is like a rollercoaster. But I am convinced that we can only get out of this pandemic together.”
Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, said the suggestion of invoking Article 16 had “undermined” the Protocol and called for “urgent action” to resolve the issues, including extending the grace period.
The DUP is urging the UK Government to scrap the protocol altogether, and is pursuing a series of political moves aimed at undermining the mechanism, including a boycott on engagement with the Irish Government on issues related to its operation and a vow to oppose any protocol-related legislation at the Assembly.
Colum Eastwood, leader of the SDLP party in Northern Ireland, called on unionists to “learn the lesson that they should have learned a number of times over the past 100 years” and work with other parties to find a workable solution to the customs issues.
“Come and work with us, let’s get together. The spirit of powersharing is what’s important right now, working in partnership to deal with the problems,” he said.