Taoiseach Micheál Martin plans to raise the Government’s “very strong concerns” about the United Kingdom’s intention to breach the Brexit deal in a call with British prime minister Boris Johnson today.
Unveiling the Government’s latest Brexit measures, Mr Martin said he was “extremely concerned” at Britain’s stated plan to “break international law” with a new bill amending the Brexit treaty.
The Taoiseach said he would register his concern in a telephone call with Mr Johnson later this afternoon “about Northern Ireland being dragged back into this and the potential for unnecessary divisiveness with the politics of Northern Ireland”.
“The degree to which it drags Northern Ireland back into the centre stage is very, very regrettable. It has the potential to be divisive in that context,” Mr Martin told reporters at a press conference at Government Buildings in Dublin.
The Taoiseach said the timing and unilateral nature of the admission by Northern Ireland secretary of state Brandon Lewis on Tuesday that new British internal market legislation would breach the Brexit treaty was “not an acceptable way to conduct negotiations”.
Mr Martin said the admission in the House of Commons had “taken a lot of people aback” across Europe and indeed within the UK” and was not conducive to meaningful negotiations.
He said he spoke to the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday night about the issue, and described the latest developments in London as “very worrying”.
“Meaningful negotiations can only proceed on the basis of mutual trust,” he said.
“Unilateral actions which seek to change the operation of measures already agreed including in an international treaty and incorporated into domestic law do not build trust.”
The Taoiseach said the admission by Mr Lewis was “a new departure” by the British government and raised questions about ongoing negotiations between the EU and the UK to reach a free trade agreement, and whether the UK would adhere to a deal in six or 12 months’ time.
The Northern secretary “didn’t display any subtly,” Mr Martin said of Mr Lewis’s remarks.
“I haven’t quite witnessed a member of any government go into a parliament and say we are going to break international law,” he said.
Mr Martin said he was not under any illusion that a no-deal Brexit would be “very damaging” but was of still of the view that the optimal outcome was a “proper, sensible free trade agreement”.
The Government was “very aware of the risks” from a no-deal Brexit, he said, as he and fellow Government party leaders announced financial supports and customs training for businesses trading with the UK to manage its departure from the EU single market from January 1st, 2021.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney warned against the potential for undermining the progress made in Northern Ireland with the reestablishment of the power-sharing government.
“I would caution anyone who is thinking about playing politics with Northern Ireland on Brexit again. Northern Ireland is too fragile and too important to be used as a pawn in the broader Brexit negotiations,” he said.
“Now is not the time to reignite disagreements that have been settled with an international agreement and international law. Now is the time to do a trade deal that is good for the UK and that is good for the EU and Ireland.”
Mr Coveney said that the Government would normally receive “a heads-up” from their British counterparts if they were announcing a new domestic plan that “may create issues.”
“None of that happened this week,” he said.
He described the developments in London as “an extraordinary change in approach from the UK government”.
“It is an extraordinary way to try to close out what is a very difficult and sensitive negotiation where trust is the most important component in terms of getting the right outcome.”
Earlier, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said he did not think there could be a free trade agreement between the UK and the EU in circumstances where the UK government is not honouring the withdrawal agreement.
Responding to comments made by the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, on Tuesday Mr Varadkar said it had been an “extraordinary statement to hear from a cabinet minister in a respected liberal democracy”.
Mr Lewis told the House of Commons the internal markets Bill to be published on Wednesday will see Britain reneging on its treaty commitment to the EU.
“This does break international law in a very specific and limited way. We’re taking the power to disapply the EU law concept of direct effect required by article 4 in certain very tightly defined circumstances,” he said.
On Wednesday morning, Mr Varadkar said: “A country either abides by the rule of law or it does not, it either honours international treaties and obligations or it does not; Britain is an honest, honourable country full of honest people, it’s the country of the Magna Carta, the country that helped defend parliamentary democracy, it’s not a rogue state.”
He told RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland that “these were extraordinary comments. It certainly set off alarm bells in Dublin, I think they have backfired. We’ve seen the response of the Northern Ireland parties, representing the majority of the people in Northern Ireland which has been very negative, we’ve seen the response from the European Union, we’ve seen the response from US Congress and Irish America.
“I think governments are scratching their heads around the world wondering whether they should enter into treaties or contracts with the British government if this is their attitude.”
Mr Varadkar said the withdrawal agreement had been ratified by the House of Commons and the House of Lords and also the European Parliament.
“I think going back to a year ago, certainly the strategy and behaviour of the British government was one of brinkmanship, was one of threatening to crash out, ‘if we don’t get an agreement we might go kamikaze on you’, that sort of thing.
“I kind of hope this is just another instalment of this, that the most benign assessment that this is brinkmanship, this is sabre rattling if we don’t get an FTA this is what we’ll do, that’s my benign interpretation and perhaps this is just part of the negotiating process in order to come to a free trade agreement with the EU, but I don’t think we can assume it’s that,” the Tánaiste said.
Mr Varadkar, who is also Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, added he thinks the UK wants a deal but that it will want a deal on the best terms it can get.
“It would seem that the sticking points are around fisheries, which is going to be a very difficult one, and also around state aids, what business supports and different supports that government can give businesses in their own country without skewing the playing field. They to me would not seem insurmountable, and there is time,” Mr Varadkar said.
Free trade agreement
However, Mr Varadkar added that he did not think there could be a free trade agreement if the UK government is not honouring the withdrawal agreement.
“They have already legislated for the withdrawal agreement, this is a change to that. Having said that, this issue would not arise if we had a free trade agreement, if there was an agreement between the EU and the UK, that we would have quota free, tariff free trade, this problem would go away. That could be what they’re playing at. I don’t think it’s a good strategy on their part at all.”
On Wednesday, Mr Varadkar will unveil the Government’s Brexit Ready Action Plan which, he said, will set out “how we’re going to deal with the next stage of Brexit — whether there is an FTA or not, the UK will leave, we don’t know if there will be quotas or tariffs, but there will be customs procedures, there will be new bureaucracy, there will be checks, it’s really about preparing businesses for the reality of that.”