Mistakes were made on all sides in the handling of Brexit, according to Ireland’s prime minister, who has admitted that the Northern Ireland protocol was “too strict”. Leo Varadkar vowed to be “flexible” and make compromises in attempting to solve the ongoing dispute between the UK and the EU over the trade barrier in the Irish Sea.
Mr Varadkar, who became prime minister for a second time in December, said he understands concerns among unionists in Northern Ireland that the treaty has made them feel less British.
The Irish PM has become deeply unpopular within sections of unionism that claim he was a key figure in the creation of the protocol. Pictures of him have recently appeared in threatening graffiti and posters in loyalist areas.
Asked about his negative public image, he told the Press Association: “I’m sure we’ve all made mistakes in the handling of Brexit. There was no road map, no manual; it wasn’t something that we expected would happen, and we’ve all done our best to deal with it.”
He added: “One thing I have said in the past is that, when we designed the protocol, when it was originally negotiated, perhaps it was a little bit too strict.”
Mr Varadkar said he looked forward to travelling to Northern Ireland early in 2023, saying he would be “reaching out to all parties and all communities in an effort to find a solution”.
He said: “I have spoken to a lot of people who come from a unionist background … I do understand how they feel about the protocol. They feel that it diminishes their place in the union, that it creates barriers between Britain and Northern Ireland that didn’t exist before. And I do understand that, and I do get that.
“But that’s also true of Brexit. Brexit was imposed on Northern Ireland without cross-community consent, without the support of the majority of people in Northern Ireland,” he added – saying the EU had helped to “diminish” the barriers between north and south.
Rishi Sunak’s government is involved in negotiations with the EU aimed at reaching a compromise on the easing of protocol checks. It remains to be seen whether any deal struck between London and Brussels will be enough to convince the DUP to lift its block on power sharing.
Mr Varadkar said the protocol has “worked without it being fully enforced”. He said the lack of a need for full enforcement showed that EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and negotiator Maros Sefcovic were “willing to show flexibility and to make compromises”.
Despite the latest Savanta poll for The Independent showing that two-thirds of voters back another referendum on EU membership, Mr Varadkar insisted that Brexit is a reality that is not going to be reversed.
“I accept that – I regret it but I accept it – and anything we’ve done since then, whether it was the backstop or the protocol, was an attempt just to deal with that reality and to avoid a hard border on our island … and also [to ensure] that the European single market is protected,” said the Irish prime minister.
He added: “The backstop, the protocol, were just mechanisms to achieve those objectives and, so long as we can achieve those objectives, I’ll be as flexible and reasonable as I can be.”
Despite optimism that a deal can be done in the weeks ahead, power sharing in Northern Ireland remains in flux, with the DUP maintaining its boycott of the Stormont institutions in protest over the protocol.
The party insists it will not return to devolved government unless radical changes are made to trading arrangements. The UK and Irish governments remain keen to see devolution return before April’s landmark 25th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace agreement.