A “tough guy” approach when it comes to Northern Ireland will lead to disaster, Ireland’s minister for European affairs has warned.
Thomas Byrne was speaking as EU and UK Brexit negotiators prepare to meet in London for talks on breaking the deadlock over the contentious protocol.
He has raised concerns over stability in Northern Ireland, with the UK threatening to trigger Article 16 of the protocol, a move that would suspend parts of the deal that has prevented a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Asked on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme if there is a serious danger of a full-scale trade war, Mr Byrne said: “There is a serious danger of complete instability in Northern Ireland and that’s what motivates the Irish Government in all of our dealings in relation to the protocol.”
He said the countries involved have worked together for decades to ensure stability, saying “we now have a division, it seems, because of threats by the British Government to, what they say, is to suspend the protocol under Article 16. We’re not entirely clear what that’s about.”
Challenged on instability in Northern Ireland and the current arrangements, he said: “I don’t think that the people who are burning buses in Northern Ireland at the moment… are fully aware of all of the details and the intricacies of the protocol.
“What they need to see, and what people in Northern Ireland need to see, is both governments working together.”
He said the EU has listened to the concerns of Northern Ireland and is in “solutions mode”, adding: “A tough approach, or a tough guy approach, when it comes to Northern Ireland can only be counter-productive and will lead to disaster.”
He said he is “very glad despite that gloomy atmosphere” that there are talks taking place on Friday, adding “there is a prize of stability and peace in Northern Ireland” as well as continuing good diplomatic relations between Britain and the EU.
Mr Byrne said the situation in Northern Ireland “is clearly very fragile”.
He referenced BBC reporting on “instances of violence, instances of fragility of that peace process this week”.
He added: “Further instability will only lead to a continuation of that.
“If we can get certainty, if we can get a continuity in trading arrangements, and less of this discussion, what will happen is that the economy in Northern Ireland will prosper and that then helps as well the social situation, which is very, very delicate at the moment.”
The latest round of talks on post-Brexit trade arrangements will see the UK Government’s chief negotiator to the EU, Lord Frost, meet European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic.
In October, the EU offered a series of changes to the protocol which would remove 80% of checks on goods between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland.
But the UK Government wants further alterations, including removing the role of the judges in the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as the arbitrators of disputes.
There is growing speculation that the UK is poised to use a get-out clause from the deal in the coming weeks.
Lord Frost told the House of Lords on Wednesday that triggering Article 16 – which would effectively suspend elements of the arrangements – will be the UK’s only option if the dispute is not resolved.
He there is “a real opportunity to turn away from confrontation, to move beyond our current difficulties and put in place a new, and better, equilibrium” in the talks.
But he added it is “not inevitable” that Article 16 will be triggered.
He said: “In my view, this talks process has not reached its end.
“Although we have been talking nearly four weeks now, there remain possibilities that the talks have not yet seriously examined, including many approaches suggested by the UK.
“There is more to do and I will certainly not give up on this process unless and until it is abundantly clear that nothing more can be done. We are certainly not there yet.
“If, however, we do in due course reach that point, the Article 16 safeguards will be our only option.”
The Irish Government has held talks with US President Joe Biden’s administration about the protocol.
On Thursday, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said contact with the US government was designed to “encourage progress” in negotiations.
The protocol effectively keeps Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single market for goods, resulting in some checks for products crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain.