Mistakes were made in the EU’s handling of the Brexit negotiations, Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, has admitted.
He said that the Northern Ireland Protocol was “too strict” and that he would be “flexible and reasonable” in negotiations with the UK about reforming the agreement.
Mr Varadkar was one of the architects of the controversial Protocol, striking a deal with Boris Johnson about the UK’s exit from the EU during his first stint as Taoiseach, which ended in 2020.
In December he became Taoiseach for a second time, taking over from Micheál Martin as part of a rotation of power agreed by the parties forming Ireland’s coalition government.
Given his role in the creation of the Protocol, Mr Varadkar has become deeply unpopular in some sections of Northern Ireland’s Unionist community, with his name and image recently appearing in threatening graffiti and posters in loyalist areas.
‘Perhaps the Protocol was a little too strict’
Asked about the negative perceptions, he said: “I’m sure we’ve all made mistakes in the handling of Brexit.
“There was no road map, no manual, it wasn’t something that we expected would happen and we’ve all done our best to deal with it.”
He added: “One thing I have said in the past is that, when we designed the Protocol, when it was originally negotiated, perhaps it was a little bit too strict.
“And we’ve seen that the Protocol has worked without it being fully enforced.
“And that’s why I think there is room for flexibility and room for changes and we’re open to that and up for that, and I know from speaking to (European Commission) President (Ursula) von der Leyen and (EC vice president) Maros Sefcovic, that’s their position too.
“So, we are willing to show flexibility and to make compromises. We do want there to be an agreement.”
Reassurance to some Unionist politicians
Mr Varadkar insisted he understood how Unionists felt 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,” he said.
“And I do understand that and I do get that. But that’s also true of Brexit.
“Brexit was imposed on Northern Ireland without cross-community consent, without the support of the majority of people in Northern Ireland… so I understand that there are two sides to this story.”
Mr Varadkar’s promise to be flexible may provide a degree of reassurance to some Unionist politicians sceptical about his involvement in the talks.
A senior Unionist politician recently told The Telegraph that they were concerned his taking the helm would herald a more hardline approach to the Protocol.
“I think Micheál Martin to be fair to him has been trying to be pragmatic and I’m not sure that will continue under Leo Varadkar,” they said. “I hope I’m wrong.”
The Protocol sought to avoid a hard border with Ireland post-Brexit, but has created trade barriers on goods being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
The DUP is currently blocking the formation of a power-sharing executive in Belfast in protest at the Protocol, which it says has erected a political border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The EU and the UK are negotiating to resolve the impasse, with hopes of a deal and a return to devolution before April’s landmark 25th anniversary of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace agreement.