Britain's Brexit Secretary Liz Truss’s first face-to-face meeting with an EU leader on the Northern Ireland Protocol this week takes place in an atmosphere of conflicting interests.
On one side, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) claims that they are “on the same page” after Truss told The Sunday Telegraph she is prepared to suspend the Protocol if a negotiated settlement with the EU continues to prove elusive.
On the other side, the European Union and Sinn Féin accused Truss and the U.K. of continuous “saber-rattling” with the Protocol suspension threat which would potentially collapse ongoing trade talks after Brexit.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, who had talks with Truss on Monday, said her Telegraph interview prompted him to “pause” his party’s threat to collapse the power-sharing institutions at Stormont.
Truss has a two-day face-to-face meeting on Thursday and Friday this week with her EU counterpart, European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič.
She said in her interview in advance of the meeting, “Let me be clear: I will not sign up to anything which sees the people of Northern Ireland unable to benefit from the same decisions on taxation and spending as the rest of the U.K., or which still sees goods moving within our own country being subject to checks.
“My priority is to protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland. I want a negotiated solution, but if we have to use legitimate provisions including Article 16, I am willing to do that.”
Article 16 is a mechanism to suspend the trade treaty already agreed between the EU and the U.K. if either side finds difficulties with the Protocol that is designed to maintain a free-flowing land border on the island of Ireland after Brexit.
Truss’s predecessor Lord David Frost threatened to trigger Article 16 for several months before she took over as Brexit secretary in addition to her continuing role as U.K. foreign secretary.
There was cautious expectation in the EU and in the Irish government that Truss, considered a likely future leader of the Tory party, would be a boost for the EU-U.K. negotiations after Frost’s obstinacy over the Protocol.
That view hasn’t diminished. Her threat to activate Article 16 is viewed as a get-tough opening position in advance of her talks this week. It’s anticipated that Truss will genuinely attempt to find a way through ambiguities in the negotiations with Sefcovic.
An Irish government source told The Irish Times that her Telegraph comments were “bluster” and written for “Westminster.”
Truss also had virtual talks on Monday with Sinn Féin leaders Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill.
Spoke with @trussliz Protocol is here to stay. Constructive, good faith work needed to resolve issues of concern. Stakes are high. Stability peace jobs & prosperity must come first. Political posturing & narrow electoral positioning of @duponline can't hold progress back.— Mary Lou McDonald (@MaryLouMcDonald) January 10, 2022
McDonald accused the U.K. government and DUP of “saber rattling.” She said there was a need to “knuckle down” and resolve the outstanding issues with the protocol.
She told BBC Radio Ulster, “To be really direct and to sum up what needs to happen now, the hard work needs to start and the bad faith from the British government and from a section, and it is only a section, of political unionism needs to stop.”
*This column first appeared in the January 12 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.