The Taoiseach has said he “regrets” Brexit was imposed on Northern Ireland without the support of unionists and nationalists.
Leo Varadkar also said there was a “very real” prospect of a deal between the EU and UK on the Northern Ireland protocol in the “next couple of months” and with “reasonableness and flexibility on both sides” he believed it could be achieved.
However, he downplayed the suggestion that this could happen ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement in April, saying this deadline was “not a hard one”.
“Of course, it’s desirable that we would have the protocol agreed and institutions in Northern Ireland working again before that anniversary, but it’s still an anniversary worth marking,” he said.
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Negotiations on the protocol are continuing between the EU and UK as expectations continue to build that there could soon be a breakthrough.
Speaking to the BBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos in Switzerland, Mr Varadkar suggested that one option could be to make current grace periods – which limit the volume of checks required on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland – permanent.
“I’m not saying that all grace periods can be made permanent, but I think we need to examine those kinds of solutions,” he said.
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The Taoiseach said he understood how “unionists and unionist politicians feel that the protocol has lessened the links, weakened the union between Northern Ireland and Britain and also that [it] exists without them having a proper say as to how it operates”.
He said he was therefore “keen”, as part of the EU, “to be flexible, to be reasonable to see what modifications and changes we can make that might ensure we have broader support in Northern Ireland for the current settlement, even if it is the case that a majority of people in the [Northern] Assembly support the protocol”.
For Northern Ireland to “work well”, he said, “you want to have cross-community support and we don’t have that at the moment”.
The North has been without an Executive or Assembly since May, when the DUP blocked their formation as part of its protest against the Northern Ireland protocol – part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement – which the DUP believes has harmed Northern Ireland economically and undermined its constitutional position within the UK.
Mr Varadkar has been seen as a provocative figure by some unionists and loyalists, who claim he played a key role in the creation of the protocol.
Since returning to the position of Taoiseach just over a month ago Mr Varadkar has taken a softer tone towards unionists and has said he understands their concerns.
In December he told reporters “mistakes” had been made on all sides in the handling of Brexit and conceded the design of the protocol was “perhaps ... a little bit too strict.”
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Following political meetings in Belfast last week, the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told reporters Mr Varadkar now had a “better understanding” of the “difficulties the protocol is creating for Northern Ireland” and it was “good that the Irish Government now recognises the need now to find a solution that will help to repair those relationships”.
The Taoiseach also said that, “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”.
Mr Donaldson welcomed the Taoiseach’s comments but said that “rather than focus on the past, London, Dublin and Brussels must now redouble their efforts on replacing the protocol with arrangements that unionists can support”.
While in Davos, the Taoiseach also met UK Labour leader Keir Starmer where they discussed a new Irish child anti-poverty strategy that was “inspired” by an approach pioneered by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who ran successive Labour governments in Britain from 1997 until 2010.
According to a readout of the meeting issued by Labour, Mr Starmer “was pleased to be briefed” by Mr Varadkar on the new Child Poverty and Wellbeing Unit at the Department of the Taoiseach, which the British politician says seeks to emulate a model adopted by the Blair/Brown New Labour movement.
Eighteen months after he first became prime minister, Mr Blair famously promised to end child poverty “within a generation”. Progress has stalled in recent years, however, and UK child poverty has actually worsened.
Labour said the two politicians also discussed the need to “proceed at pace” to reach a deal between the UK and the European Union over the Northern Ireland protocol. Mr Starmer has offered his political backing to Tory prime minister Rishi Sunak’s government, should it need opposition votes in the House of Commons to get any deal over the line.