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Leo Varadkar: British war on Brexit protocol fuels support for Irish unity

DUBLIN — The British government’s untrustworthy handling of Brexit is pushing majority opinion in Northern Ireland closer to a united Ireland, Irish Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Wednesday.

Varadkar said most members of the new Northern Ireland Assembly accept the post-Brexit trade protocol, yet Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s threats to break this agreement with the EU ignores that reality — and makes a future breakup of the U.K. more likely.

“If they keep trying to impose on Northern Ireland things that Northern Ireland doesn’t want, that surely drives more people towards [Irish] nationalism and away from support for the union. It just seems a bit puzzling,” Varadkar told RTÉ radio.

“Brexit changed things,” he said, referring to the 2016 referendum results when most voters in Northern Ireland and Scotland supported staying in the EU.

“Anyone would acknowledge that the decision to impose Brexit on Northern Ireland and Scotland against their will has caused more people in Scotland and Northern Ireland to question whether they’re better off in the union,” he said.

Varadkar — Ireland’s prime minister in 2019 when he and Johnson reached agreement on the basic principles of what became the protocol — said the British government’s announcement Tuesday of its intention to publish a bill breaking those treaty commitments undermined trust in EU capitals and risked further eroding internal support for the U.K.

Asked whether Johnson misrepresented himself at that summit before winning a December 2019 election claiming to have secured an “oven-ready deal” on Brexit, Varadkar replied: “I think he was being expedient. He had an election coming up. He wanted to win it.”

Varadkar — who is due later this year to resume his previous role as prime minister atop Dublin’s three-party government — said Johnson’s anti-EU rhetoric threatened the true economic interests of Northern Ireland and appeared tailored instead to secure Conservative votes in England.

The protocol, part of the U.K.-EU Withdrawal Agreement, requires EU checks on British goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. This arrangement keeps Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market for goods — enabling its manufacturers to keep exporting freely to the 27-nation bloc as well as Britain — and strengthens cross-border trade with the Republic of Ireland, its EU neighbor.

Northern Ireland’s unionists oppose the protocol on the grounds that EU checks make it harder to ship goods from Britain and, in so doing, have driven an economic wedge into the U.K. The Democratic Unionists — who retained 25 seats in the 90-seat Northern Ireland Assembly following elections this month — are refusing to revive a power-sharing government until Britain unilaterally stops the checks.

Varadkar said Northern Ireland’s farmers particularly depend on maintaining enforcement of common EU food standards.

“In the future, Britain might do a trade deal that brings chlorinated chicken in from Thailand, or hormone-treated beef in from America, or who knows what from Brazil or other parts of the world,” he said. “Is this something that the Ulster Farmers Union actually wants?”

He said the U.K.’s new threat to pass legislation that would unilaterally change its treaty with the EU may “run aground” as previously happened with its Internal Market Bill. But the recurring refusal to enforce full EU checks at Northern Irish ports as agreed — and as the Irish have done at Dublin Port since early 2021 — “does create an atmosphere of distrust.”

“If we agree anything with them, how will we know that they will honor that agreement? And if we make any concessions, how will we know that we’ll get some concessions back in return? That’s usually how negotiation works. It requires a bit of give and take,” he said.

“But it seems that when it comes to this British government anyway, it’s all take and then they try and take some more. That’s not a good basis, unfortunately, for negotiations to succeed or for a good relationship.”

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