Ireland and the UK are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, which has delivered almost 25 years of peace and security in Northern Ireland. Ireland and the UK worked in close partnership to deliver successive milestones in the peace process including the Anglo-Irish Agreement under Margaret Thatcher and the Downing Street Declaration under John Major. As your friend and neighbour, I am deeply concerned for the wellbeing of the partnership between our countries.
In the long negotiations on the UK’s departure from the EU, both sides agreed that given the nature of its history, geography and politics, Brexit posed particular challenges for Northern Ireland. Both sides agreed that those challenges needed a unique solution.
That solution, chosen freely and jointly designed by the British Government and the EU, was the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. I am therefore worried that the British Government is now considering legislating to disapply elements of the Protocol.
The UK has always – rightly – been critical of those countries which fail to meet international legal obligations. Moving to disapply the Protocol would be a serious violation of international law. That fact cannot be disputed by advocates of the move. It would not only damage trust between the EU and UK, but also undermine the UK’s international reputation and its standing as a strong voice on the rule of law. I urge our friends in the UK to think carefully before breaking international law.
At a time when the international order the UK has successfully championed since WW2 is under great pressure, the world’s democracies need to stand together. Our cooperation in response to Russia’s barbarous attacks on Ukraine shows what partnership can deliver.
Arguing that the Good Friday Agreement and the Protocol are incompatible is disingenuous and dangerous. Taken together, they are a powerful expression of what negotiation and partnership can achieve. The former underpinned peace and prosperity for the last 25 years; the latter, if applied appropriately, will consolidate this achievement and bring real opportunities for people in Northern Ireland.
There has been much ill-founded comment about the Protocol recently. Let me address two key points.
First – the Protocol does not weaken UK sovereignty or Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. Article 1 expressly acknowledges that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland can only be changed with the consent of a majority of its people, in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement.
Second – the Protocol has democratic legitimacy; it was clearly endorsed in a general election in 2019 in which the current Government campaigned for it. It was subsequently ratified with a large majority in Parliament. Only 10 days ago, Northern Ireland elected a majority of MLAs who support the Protocol – 53 of 90. I respect the clear mandate provided by those democratic processes and so should others.
That is not to say that the Protocol is working as smoothly or as easily as it could do. A large minority in Northern Ireland are unhappy about some aspects of it. I respect that and want to find practical solutions to address their concerns. Having been in Belfast this week, I am absolutely convinced that there is a landing zone for pragmatic and workable approaches to all those concerned.
EU proposals would significantly reduce checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, create express lanes and give Northern Ireland a greater say in how the Protocol works. Disappointingly, the full potential of these proposals has never been explored by the UK.
I worry about the apparent wish of the British Government to choose a path of confrontation and unilateral action, in a manner that will not contribute towards peace and security in Northern Ireland.
Ireland has always recognized the importance of having a strong relationship with our closest neighbour. This is not just because of our joint stewardship of the successive agreements that underpin Northern Ireland’s peace and security, but because most people in Ireland, including myself, have close family and friends in the UK. Increased tension is the last thing we want to see.
In this post-election period, as the parties strive to form an Executive, people and businesses in Northern Ireland want certainty, stability, and security. Peace in Northern Ireland can only be protected with partnership and pragmatism. Unilateral actions never deliver a sustainable outcome. If pursued, they will only deepen distrust between the EU and the UK and make agreement more difficult. Far from fixing the problem in Northern Ireland, they will exacerbate uncertainty, tensions and division. I urge our friends and partners in the UK to think again.
Simon Coveney is Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defense