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UK Government willing to have ‘serious dialogue’ over NI Protocol – Coveney

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney speaking to the media at Iveagh House, the Department of Foreign Affairs, in Dublin. Photo by Brian Lawless/PA

By Jonathan McCambridge, PA

There is now a willingness in the UK Government to have a “serious dialogue” about solving problems caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol, Irish Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney has said.

Speaking following a meeting with new Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris at Hillsborough Castle, Co Down, Mr Coveney said the messages coming from London were “quite different” from those of recent months.

Mr Heaton-Harris said that he preferred a negotiated settlement with the EU over the post-Brexit arrangement, but added that the UK Government would continue with its legislation to override parts of the treaty.

The protocol, signed by former prime minister Boris Johnson’s government, effectively keeps Northern Ireland aligned with many EU single market rules to avoid a hard border with Ireland, therefore requiring some checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.

Devolution in the region has been in flux since February when the DUP withdrew its first minister from the governing executive in protest at the economic border created in the Irish Sea by the protocol.

The government has introduced legislation which effectively tears up parts of the agreement, sparking a row with the EU.

The meeting between the two figures came hours before former EU negotiator Michel Barnier told a gathering in Dublin that the bloc “must not and will not back down”.

During an address in Iveagh House, Mr Barnier said that Brexit also remained “a challenge” for Ireland, and “a blow” to the European Union project.

He said: “The European Union must not and will not back down, and the protocol of Ireland and Northern Ireland must and has to be respected by the British government. This is international law.”

European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic is due to have a conversation with Foreign Secretary James Cleverly later this week on the issue.

But ahead of that, Mr Coveney said his meeting with Mr Heaton-Harris had focused on rebuilding partnerships, stating the aftermath of Brexit had brought “unnecessary tension”.

Speaking about the Northern Ireland Protocol, he said: “We know what the obstacles are, they have been there for too long."

“There are new people effectively in the relationships now."

“It is not a coincidence that the new Prime Minister (Liz Truss) has met President (Ursula) von der Leyen, President (Joe) Biden, the Taoiseach (Micheal Martin)."

“The conversations, from my understanding, have been positive in terms of trying to find a sensible way forward."

“From an EU perspective, they don’t want this issue to drag on."

“The last thing the EU wants to be doing is taking the British Government to court.”

He added: “What the UK and EU have in common far outweighs what divides us."

“The aftermath of Brexit and the protocol issue has been a source of unnecessary tension that we need to move beyond."

“That puts the onus on us, what does that look like in terms of practical compromise?"

“We see the messages coming from London now as quite different from the messages we were getting some months ago."

“We do believe there is a willingness now for an honest and open, serious dialogue about trying to put these issues to rest."

Mr Heaton-Harris said that the Government’s protocol bill was continuing its passage through parliament.

He said: “We want to negotiate a settlement here."

“We want to negotiate with our European partners to find the solutions here."

“But the bill will still go through its processes if that doesn’t work.”

The two ministers said they had also discussed how to restore the Stormont powersharing institutions and controversial government legislation on dealing with the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Mr Heaton-Harris said: “Our joint top priority is doing everything we can to ensure an executive is re-established before an election has to be called.”

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