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BELFAST — The British government is breaking the spirit of the Good Friday agreement and needlessly risking the future of Northern Ireland power-sharing as it confronts Europe over the post-Brexit trade protocol, Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin said Friday at the start of a day of diplomacy in Belfast.
“It’s not good enough that the institutions of the Good Friday agreement should be at risk on this issue,” Martin said before entering talks with Democratic Unionist Party leader Jeffrey Donaldson at a central Belfast hotel.
The DUP, now in second place behind Sinn Féin following this month’s Stormont elections, is using its position as the main British unionist party to block operation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and formation of a new cross-community government, a central objective of the region’s 1998 peace accord.
Donaldson said his party would keep wielding its veto on progress until Britain unilaterally halts EU-required checks on British goods arriving at Northern Irish ports, a step that Foreign Secretary Liz Truss says Britain soon could take.
When asked whether the DUP would ever agree to compromise on the protocol’s requirement for at least some enforcement of a so-called Irish Sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K., Martin said the main problem lies in London.
“My main concern is, will the United Kingdom government ever be satisfied? Even though it signed off on this deal, ratified it in parliament [and] now says they want to unravel it,” Martin told BBC Radio Ulster.
Martin — who was part of the Irish government that signed the peace agreement alongside Tony Blair’s Labour government on Good Friday 24 years ago — said Boris Johnson’s administration appeared disinterested in maintaining the kind of close London-Dublin cooperation that runs through the Good Friday deal.
He said his government and the European Commission both had hoped the U.K. would pursue “professional, serious negotiations” with Brussels once the May 5 assembly elections were out of the way. Instead, he said, they now faced “unilateralism on behalf of a British government saying, ‘our way or no way.’ You don’t negotiate with the European Union on that basis.”
Martin said previous British governments had worked “hand in glove” with Dublin to keep “anchoring the peace” in Belfast.
But this British government, he said, increasingly acts on its own and has unsettled the delicate balance of interests painstakingly achieved in 1998.
“The current U.K. government has moved too far in a unilateral way on issues, be it legacy issues, be it the protocol. In my view that is not fully in accordance with the spirit of the Good Friday agreement,” he said, describing that spirit as “collaboration and working together.”
Martin accused Johnson and Truss of unreasonably dismissing the European Commission’s October proposals for reforming protocol rules. The EU “really didn’t get any response,” he said, while EU lead negotiator Maroš Šefčovič “got nowhere” in identifying any clearly defined “landing zone” from the British.
Instead, he said, London kept pocketing EU offers — particularly on the free movement of British-made generic drugs to Northern Ireland, a part of the October package that the EU has already enacted on its own — and raising new demands.
“What really worries me is this degree to which the goal posts keep on shifting, that one can never say that if we resolve this particular issue or that issue, that we will get a resolution once and for all,” he said.
Martin spoke Thursday to Commission President Ursula von der Leyen about the impasse, and said she fully shared his concerns. “There’s a lot of frustration on the EU side,” he said.
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