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Irish Government warns Brexit deal changes undermine progress in trade talks

Julien Behal Photography

By Cate McCurry, PA

The Irish premier has said he is “extremely concerned” about the British Government’s controversial plans to override key elements of the Brexit deal with Brussels.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said on Tuesday that legislation to change the Withdrawal Agreement would go against international law in a “very specific and limited way”.

Taoiseach Micheal Martin warned that the move has the capacity to “undermine progress” in the trade negotiations.

The Irish Government has heavily criticised the decision, with Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney warning against anyone “thinking about playing politics with Northern Ireland on Brexit again”.

Mr Martin said that trust is “fundamental” in the conduct of negotiations.

The Taoiseach was to speak with Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday about the latest development.

“We’re extremely concerned about unilateral nature of the British Government’s action,” Mr Martin added.

“But the timing of this initiative, unilateral in nature, does not build trust.

“I will be speaking later this afternoon with the British Prime Minister to register our very strong concerns about this latest development, and in particular the unilateral nature of it and the fact that it fundamentally is seeking to deviate from what is an agreed international treaty.

“I think it’s taken a lot people aback across Europe, and indeed in the United Kingdom itself, and it’s not an acceptable way to conduct negotiations.

“I spoke with the president of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, last evening and we both agree that this is a very serious development.

“In addition, I would say also the degree to which it drags Northern Ireland back into the centre stage is very, very regrettable. It has the potential to be divisive in that context and we will all work to make sure that does not transpire.”

He made the comments as the Government unveiled a series of business supports to prepare Irish firms for Brexit.

Mr Martin said the Northern Ireland protocol contained with the Withdrawal Agreement, which secured the UK’s departure from the EU in January, will apply.

Mr Coveney warned the British Government that now is not the time to “reignite disagreements” that have been settled in an international agreement and international law.

“Northern Ireland is too fragile and too important to be used as a pawn in the broader Brexit negotiations,” he said.

“Now is the time to find a way to do a trade deal that is good for the UK and good for the EU and Ireland.

“Today, in many ways, is a call to action to all businesses in Ireland. We have less than four months to finish our preparations and to be ready. This time it’s for real.”

Mr Coveney said the Irish Government had received no “heads up” from the British Government about its change in direction.

He condemned the move as an “extraordinary way” to try to close a “very difficult and sensitive” negotiation period.

“We need to be calm and not overreact. It really is an extraordinary change of approach from the British Government that’s very, very problematic,” he added.

Tanaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar appealed to businesses to take action and prepare for Brexit.

“You need to be prepared for the new normal and you need to be ready now,” he said.

“We are making available a grant of 9,000 euros per employee hired or redeployed to enable businesses to build their capacity and manage any custom changes.

“My message to business people is simple – I know you are under a lot of pressure, I know you are being pulled in many directions and you’ve had a tough year, but Brexit has not gone away and the next stage is happening.”

The Government is publishing the General Scheme of the 2020 Brexit Omnibus Bill, which addresses a wide range of issues that will arise at the end of the transition period.

The legislation will be brought before the Oireachtas in the autumn.

A new communications campaign focused on ensuring business and individuals are prepared for Brexit was also being launched on Wednesday.

Letters will be sent in the coming days to more than 90,000 companies which have traded with the UK since 2019.

The letters will be backed up with telephone calls, the Government added.

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