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 as the Democratic Unionist party continues to refuse to take part in protest over 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.”
Earlier this month, Varadkar admitted mistakes were made on all sides in the handling of Brexit.
The protocol keeps Northern Ireland aligned with some EU trade rules by effectively placing a border in the Irish Sea that 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.
The Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, has made clear he will not make an announcement about any potential election date for at least several weeks. He hopes the government and EU can strike a deal on the protocol that will persuade the DUP to return to Stormont and avoid the need for a fresh election.
The ongoing DUP block on the functioning of powersharing, in protest at the protocol, has ensured the Stormont institutions have remained in flux since the last assembly election in May. The ministerial executive collapsed three months earlier when the DUP withdrew its first minister.
On Thursday, Heaton-Harris and fellow UK ministers joined counterparts from Ireland’s government for a meeting of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Dublin.
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 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 following May’s election. As the institutions can function only with the co-operation of the largest nationalist party and largest unionist party, the DUP effectively holds a veto on powersharing returning.
The party has made it clear 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 red tape on 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 that may emerge must meet its tests on removing trade barriers if it is to countenance a return to Stormont.