The British ambassador to Ireland has played down concerns that the UK will never be satisfied with any changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The post-Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland, which created new checks on goods moving from Great Britain, have paralysed politics in the region and overshadowed relations between the Republic of Ireland and the UK.
Paul Johnston, who has been ambassador to Ireland since 2020, admitted that wrangling between Dublin, Brussels and London over the protocol has damaged ties between the UK and Ireland.
Speaking to journalists on Friday, in the same week that Foreign Secretary Liz Truss announced plans to legislate to over-ride parts of the Brexit withdrawal treaty the UK struck with the EU, Mr Johnston sought to alleviate concerns the UK will never be happy no matter what compromises are made.
Mr Johnston said the world has changed dramatically since the protocol was agreed.
He stressed the UK would not be announcing plans to take unilateral action unless it was thought necessary.
He said: “The times have changed and this, in principle, refusal to reopen the mandate is a point that we’re bumping up against and we wouldn’t be wanting to do it unless we thought it was necessary.”
The UK, he said, wants something that is “sustainable, has broader support and doesn’t make the protocol a wedge issue in Northern Ireland politics”.
He added: “I think some people have suggested we have a rolling programme of changes and that we’ll never be satisfied.
“We want to get to a sustainable end date.”
He said that UK demands have already been set out in the command paper published last year, as well as by Ms Truss.
Mr Johnston insisted the relationship between the UK and Ireland had been dominated by the protocol.
He said: “This is obviously front and centre at the moment and gets a lot of the profile.
“But the relationship is about a lot more than that and people who have dealt with it for a lot longer than me will say ‘look, we’ve been through rocky periods before and the essential shared interest is permanent, and the differences are always something we need to work through’.
“The contact remains intense. I spent a lot of this week talking to Irish officials and politicians.
“It is a challenging time but it is absolutely one of our key relationships and partnerships.”
He also insisted the UK wants a better relationship with the EU going forward.
“I think the Prime Minister would much rather be working with the EU on climate change and Ukraine, and other issues.
“We’d much rather be working with the new Executive in Northern Ireland to deliver on Covid recovery and health service reform, addressing waiting lists, working with Ireland on renewable energy and the Security Council.”
The British ambassador was also clear the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) remained a sticking point in the protocol while also stressing his hope that grace periods would continue into the near future.
He said: “Although, of course, we would want a much more flexible and less onerous implementation, the grace periods have given help to individuals and businesses in Northern Ireland.
“We would hope those could continue while we are seeking to get to a more settled, steady state.”
Addressing the issue of the ECJ, he said: “It is an oddity that jurisdiction in one country is basically in the hands of the court of the other side and, therefore, we would like to explore something that looked more like a distinct partnership model than the current regime, and that is an important point to us.”
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