New Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar – seen as a bogeyman by many unionists in Northern Ireland – has said he “understands” and “gets” the concerns that community has about the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol he helped to design.
Mr Varadkar, who began his second term as Taoiseach in mid-December, told reporters at a briefing in Dublin: “I have spoken to a lot of people who come from a unionist background in Northern Ireland over the years.
“I do understand how they feel about the protocol. They feel that it diminishes their place in the union, that it creates barriers between Britain and Northern Ireland that didn’t exist before. And I do understand that and I do get that.”
The Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the Brexit withdrawal deal, was agreed in October 2019 when Mr Varadkar was in his first term as Taoiseach, after a meeting with then prime minister Boris Johnson in Merseyside.
The arrangement, designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, is opposed by all the unionist parties in Northern Ireland, who see it as threatening the union with Great Britain.
The largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is currently blocking the formation of a power-sharing government until the protocol is scrapped or radically altered.
“A lot of people who are unionists feel that the protocol has separated them from Great Britain,” Mr Varadkar acknowledged.
“A lot of people from a nationalist background in Northern Ireland feel that it (Brexit) separated them from the rest of Ireland. So there are two sides to this story.”
The Taoiseach also repeated his admission that the protocol, as originally designed, is perhaps “a little bit too strict” and “we’ve seen that the protocol has worked without it being fully enforced”, something that he said is “why I think there is room for changes. And we’re open to that. We are willing to show flexibility and to make compromises”.
He continued: “I’m sure we’ve all made mistakes in the handling of Brexit. There was no roadmap, no manual, it wasn’t something that we expected would happen and we’ve all done our best to deal with it.”
The comments will be welcomed in London, as diplomatic efforts to secure a deal with the EU on the protocol resume in 2023.
An unofficial deadline for an agreement – and the possible resumption of the Stormont power-sharing government – is 10 April, the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland, and a potential visit from US President Joe Biden.
Read more: What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
Many unionists will treat Mr Varadkar’s claims of empathy with scepticism.
He is widely regarded as less sensitive to unionist concerns than his predecessor Micheal Martin, who has now become minister for foreign affairs and Tanaiste (deputy prime minister) under the terms of Ireland’s coalition government.
The DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson directly referenced that fact when he said: “Micheal Martin sought to understand why unionism was wholly opposed to the Northern Ireland Protocol. I encourage Leo Varadkar to follow Micheal Martin’s example in managing north-south relationships.”
Just days before becoming Taoiseach again, Mr Varadkar’s image appeared on posters in loyalist areas of Belfast, against the backdrop of a photograph of the loyalist Dublin/Monaghan bombings of 1974 that killed 33 people.
The posters featured the slogan “Peace or Protocol: It’s your decision”.
Mr Varadkar said he wants to visit Northern Ireland “early” in January, and admitted he did have some “concerns” over his personal safety, but added that it would not deter him from carrying out his duties.