Breaching Northern Ireland Protocol big mistake, Irish foreign minister warns UK

Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney has warned the UK it will be making “a really big mistake” if it breaches the Northern Ireland Protocol on Brexit.

The UK Government is poised to reintroduce elements of its controversial Internal Market Bill next week, which could override the protocol, in a move that would breach international law.

The UK is also set to table its Finance Bill, elements of which could also breach parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol – designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland – agreed last year.

It comes amid an intense period of negotiations between the EU and the UK to reach a post-Brexit trade deal.

Mr Coveney said on Wednesday that such a move by the UK would be taken as a “clear signal” by the EU that Britain does not want a deal.

He said: “I think if they do that, it will be a clear signal to the EU that this process is not going to conclude well.

“It will be a signal that they effectively don’t want a deal. I really hope that doesn’t happen.

“We have certainly given signals in as respectful, but in as blunt a way as we can, that that would be a really big mistake at this stage in negotiations.

“I think Michel Barnier’s briefing of the meeting this morning would reflect that too.”

On Wednesday morning, EU chief negotiator Mr Barnier reportedly briefed European ambassadors that a breach of the Northern Ireland Protocol would trigger a “crisis” and cause a breakdown in trust.

Mr Coveney told the Oireachtas Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union on Wednesday that an agreement on the implementation of the protocol is close.

He expressed his hope that a deal will be reached soon, which could negate the need for the UK to introduce its own domestic legislation which could override the protocol.

He said: “There’s a lot of negotiating to happen between now and then. I hope there will be no need for domestic legislation that threatens the implementation of the protocol, because of a successful outcome to negotiation. Time will tell.”

Mr Coveney was heavily critical of the British Government’s actions around the Internal Market Bill, which he said had damaged their reputation internationally.

He said: “We’ve wasted so much time talking about the Internal Market Bill. The motivation of the British Government in terms of why they’re doing it.

“Is it a negotiating strategy? Is it a way of potentially sinking these negotiations if they wanted to?”

Mr Coveney said: “It’s undoubtedly doing damage to Britain’s reputation internationally. Not just in the European Union, on the other side of the Atlantic as well.

“They’re just trying to understand, what is the British Government at here?

“It’s in some ways a very provocative approach that has undermined trust and sucked in a huge amount of oxygen that could have been used to resolve these issues through negotiation.

“We could have a second piece of legislation that doubles down on the issue through the Finance Bill next week, in the context of another element of the protocol.

“I think the EU will draw only one conclusion if that course of action happens, which will be hugely regrettable.”