The EU’s attempt to suspend part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement in a row over vaccine delivery was a “costly mistake,” according to the Foreign Affairs Minister.
On Friday, the EU said it would prevent the exporting of vaccine from the North to Britain by triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol.
The move was aimed at stopping vaccines moving from the EU into Britain by using Northern Ireland as a “backdoor” – effectively imposing checks on the Irish border.
The EU rolled back on the plan later in the evening, following criticism from the Irish and British Governments as well as political leaders in the North.
On The Pat Kenny Show this morning, the Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said it was a “costly mistake.”
“It shouldn’t have happened,” he said. “It wouldn’t have happened if there had been any consultation with the Irish Government and I think everybody regrets that now.
“What I would say, to the Commission’s credit, is that once this issue was communicated to Ireland, we objected strongly and immediately and to be fair to the Commission, they did reverse the decision the same night.”
He said it was “an extraordinary thing to do” for the EU to announce the move before talking to the Government.
“I think lessons have been learned from that,” he said.
“In simple terms, you do not touch the Northern Ireland protocol without talking to the Irish and British Governments and also to the Executive in Northern Ireland.
“It is far too sensitive. It is a very fine balance in terms of a compromise negotiated over a long period of time and it does very important work in terms of protecting the peace process, preventing border infrastructure, facilitating trade between Northern Ireland and the UK.
“To do anything that would disrupt or undermine that, particularly on an issue that is not linked to Brexit at all, was a mistake that will not happen again.”
Minister Coveney said the British Government did “show patience” when the move was announced on Friday.
“On Friday evening, I rang Michael Gove and the Taoiseach also spoke to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and we said, ‘look give us a few hours and we will resolve the issue with the Commission’ - and we did,” he said
“To be fair to the British Government they did give us the time and space to do that but in Northern Ireland in particular, which is my main concern here, this has created tension, angst and concern and that is not welcome and we have to work to fix that.”
He said he has not spoken to Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier since the announcement – but noted that the Co-chair of the EU-UK Joint Committee, Maroš Šefčovič, was “very uncomfortable with what happened and very helpful in reversing it.”
“I suspect Michel Barnier would also have been both annoyed and surprised at what happened on Friday because he has spent the last four-and-a-half years of his life trying to solve difficult issues linked to the UKs decision to leave the EU and solving the island of Ireland issues was perhaps the most challenging element of that,” he said.
“So, to undermine in any way that protocol is certainly something that he wouldn’t have sanctioned and wouldn’t have been aware of on Friday.”