Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has said he regrets that the Northern Ireland protocol he agreed with Boris Johnson to end a Brexit impasse was signed without the agreement of unionists and nationalists.
The admission came as the latest deadline to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland passed with the Democratic Unionist party continuing to refuse to take part in protest against the protocol.
Varadkar said: “The regret that I have, is that in the same way Brexit was imposed on Northern Ireland without the support of both communities, the protocol was imposed on Northern Ireland without the support of two communities.”
Speaking to the BBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Varadkar added: “Economically, broadly speaking, the protocol is working: there’s no hard border between north and south; the single market’s integrity has been protected; the Northern Ireland economy is outperforming the UK economy. But I can understand how unionist politicians feel that the protocol has lessened the links, weakened the union between Northern Ireland and Britain.”
The protocol keeps Northern Ireland aligned with some EU trade rules by effectively placing a border in the Irish Sea, which angers unionists. As the DUP continues to block powersharing, the UK government has again assumed a legal duty to call a snap assembly election in the region within 12 weeks.
Varadkar’s remarks came hours after the Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker vowed to bring the DUP and the European Research Group, the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party, into the “positive” space where a deal could be done.
Baker told reporters they should regard the meeting of Irish and British ministers in Dublin at the British Irish Intergovernmental conference on Thursday as a “success” because it reflected a new collaborative and engaged relationship between the countries.
He and the Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, are playing a central role in repairing relations and bringing a deal on the protocol to the table that both the DUP and ERG can support.
“Actually, I’m very proud that two former ERG chairmen have been part of completely transforming this relationship and I’m pleased because we are now on a positive trajectory together and we’re going to work together … and I very much hope will bring the DUP and Eurosceptic MPs to the same positive base in our relations with Ireland,” Baker said.
Heaton-Harris has delayed calling fresh elections for the Stormont assembly to give talks with the EU a chance to find a solution that will get the DUP back into the assembly. He told reporters in Dublin: “I think we can deliver.”
Michael Martin, the former taoiseach and now deputy prime minister, said he endorsed Baker’s comments and wanted to “maintain this momentum in terms of the British-Irish relationship”.
If a deal emerges in the coming weeks, and the DUP agrees to re-enter powersharing on the back of it, Heaton-Harris could then ask parliament to retrospectively extend the 19 January deadline for forming an executive – meaning the parties could return to Stormont without the need for a fresh election.
Thursday was the latest in a series of deadlines the parties have been given to resurrect devolution since May’s election. As the institutions can function only with the cooperation of the largest nationalist party and largest unionist party, the DUP effectively holds a veto on the return of powersharing.
The party has said it will go back into devolved government only if significant changes are delivered on the protocol.
Many unionists in Northern Ireland are vehemently opposed to arrangements that have created economic barriers on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, insisting the protocol has weakened the region’s place within the United Kingdom.
The EU and UK continue to engage in negotiations aimed at significantly reducing the paperwork involved in Irish Sea trade, with both sides recently talking up the potential of an agreed solution being reached.
The DUP has made it clear any agreement must meet its tests on removing trade barriers if it is to countenance a return to Stormont.