There is still "quite a big gap" between the EU and the UK in the dispute over Northern Ireland's post-Brexit trade rules, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.
The Minister told the Seanad Brexit committee that there was "a lot at stake over the next few weeks" given the potential "carryover" for the EU-UK trade deal to be affected if the London government decides to suspend parts of the Northern Ireland protocol over the row.
The EU has warned that the protocol and trade agreement were “inextricably linked” and that it would respond “very robustly” to the suspension of parts of the protocol under Article 16.
Brussels would regard this "as a fairly serious breach of good faith," said Mr Coveney. "That is the last place any of us want to be, particularly in Ireland or in the UK," he said.
Mr Coveney said that there was a chance “to seize momentum” toward finding a compromise in EU-UK negotiations aimed at resolving the dispute over the protocol but that it required “a much more positive, much more stable, much more trusting EU-UK relationship.”
“We have some way to go to get there,” he added.
The EU and the UK are locked in negotiations in a bid to break the deadlock over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, which covers the special trading arrangements designed to prevent Brexit creating a hard border re-emerging on the island of Ireland.
Unionists oppose the protocol, arguing that it creates a trade barrier between Britain and Northern Ireland. The UK government is seeking changes to the protocol and has threatened to trigger the Article 16 clause of the protocol to suspend parts of its operation if it is not changed.
Under the protocol, Northern Ireland remains under EU trade rules for goods.
Mr Coveney told Independent senator Michael McDowell that the UK government’s request for all goods coming from Britain sold in Northern Ireland to be exempt from all checks and customs declarations was “a very difficult thing for the EU to deliver.”
The EU can “go a long way” to reduce those checks significantly, he said, referring to the EU’s proposals to reduce food checks by 80 per cent and customs checks by 50 per cent.
Britain's Brexit minister David Frost had "shown a lot of scepticism" on whether these proposals are possible but Mr Coveney said the EU's Brexit negotiator Maros Sefcovic and his team were "very clear and strong" that they can deliver on those proposals.
The UK “has got to give something here too”, said Mr Coveney.
On the prospect of a compromise being reached, he said he was “more hopeful than I was a fortnight ago.”
Mr Coveney described Lord Frost as a “good and tough negotiator” and that the British negotiating tactic has been “very successful in terms of delivering concessions and flexibility from the EU” but it has not been successful in terms of “reputation and relationships.”
The Minister said the way the UK government had behaved over the last 10 months had "put a lot of strain" on relationships, between the EU and the UK, between the Ireland and the UK and, at times, between the UK and the US given the responses from the White House and Capitol Hill.
However, he said he was very anxious to focus on “the limited but nevertheless limited progress of the last 10 days or so.”
He said the Government wanted to maximise the opportunities in the post-Brexit trade deal agreed by the EU and UK and to develop the future relationship with the UK positively.
“In order to achieve this, the parties must work together, in a spirit of partnership and trust. When trust is compromised, progress is threatened,” said Mr Coveney.
“The recent UK approach to the protocol has unfortunately called that trust into question. I believe, however, that there is an opportunity before us now to seize momentum toward agreeing a constructive way forward.”