The then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who is now the Tanaiste, negotiated the Northern Ireland Protocol with Prime Minister Boris Johnson last year.The protocol aimed to prevent a hard border arising on the island of Ireland, by ensuring a customs border would go down the Irish Sea instead. Northern Ireland would still leave the EU along with the rest of the UK, but would continue to follow the bloc’s trade rules for the single market and customs union.
This agreement was seen as a breakthrough at the time, and meant the withdrawal agreement could be passed into law.
However, the issue of the Irish border has returned to the forefront of ongoing Brexit rows recently after Mr Johnson proposed the Internal Market Bill.
The bill showed the Prime Minister had been true to his word in allowing Northern Ireland “unfettered access” to British markets — but it does breach elements of the protocol in the process.
Downing Street claimed the EU was even threatening to blockade British goods from entering Northern Ireland.
First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster spoke out about the matter this week and said it was important for the bill to establish “unfettered access” across the UK.
She explained: “The EU needs to stop using Northern Ireland to get their own way.
“We are not the plaything of the EU and it causes great difficulties here in Northern Ireland when people use Northern Ireland in that fashion.”
She went on to attack Mr Varadkar for using an old newspaper report of an IRA terror attack on the border in conversation with the EU back in 2018.
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As the Belfast Telegraph reported: “It was the worst attack on a customs post during the Troubles and the single biggest loss of life of customs officials (four).”
It continued: “Customs posts were regularly targeted by the IRA throughout the Troubles as they viewed them as symbolic of the division between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
“There have been fears that checkpoints could return to the Irish border in the event of a hard Brexit and that this could again lead to violence.”
Yet, this week, Ms Foster urged EU officials to focus on east to west access, rather than always prioritising the Irish Border.
She said: “There needs to be an acknowledgement that east/west — the integrity of the UK— needs to be protected as much as having to deal with the north/south trade.”
Ms Foster has been pushing the same message for some time.
For instance, back in October last year, she dismantled Mr Varadkar’s concerns about the Irish border which he demonstrated when he showed the EU the report of the tragic 1972 bombing.
She said: “Of course any violence or threat of violence should not be adhered to.
“[But] when Leo Varadkar talked about the possibility of dissident violence along the border, if there were any border infrastructure piece, I thought that was wrong.
“I said so at the time. Because you can’t use the threat of violence to achieve something.”
Ms Foster claimed that set a precedent with comments which could have motivated loyalist sentiment.
Earlier this week, Ms Foster also dubbed the issue of British goods being imported to Northern Ireland “straightforward”, adding that it “should not be used as a bargaining chip”, but solved quickly.