Northern Ireland’s chief constable has called for the region to “step back from the brink” of violence amid simmering tensions over the imposition of Brexit arrangements that have seriously disrupted trade with the British mainland.
Ms Foster was speaking after Dublin dismissed as “unrealistic” her call for Boris Johnson to scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol, in which the prime minister signed up to a customs border down the Irish Sea as part of his Brexit deal.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said that, while the Republic wanted to be “helpful” by using existing flexibilities in the agreement to ease trading conditions, the EU would not tear up or dramatically change the protocol in response to “unilateral demands or threats” from London.
Meanwhile, arch-Brexiteer Lord Lamont warned that the red tape imposed by the protocol was making commerce between Northern Ireland and Great Britain “uneconomic” and heightening the prospect of a united Ireland.
“Is not the risk that the Northern Ireland economy will gradually drift away from the UK single market and that the east-west trade will be increasingly replaced by north-south trade and that will have potentially profound political implications,” the former chancellor asked the House of Lords. “Isn’t that what is alarming people?”
Physical inspections of animal-based products arriving from the mainland remain suspended at Belfast and Larne ports amid concerns for the safety of staff following the appearance of menacing graffiti.
Police have made clear there is no evidence of wider paramilitary involvement in threats.
But Mr Byrne warned of the potential for tensions within the loyalist community to escalate.
“It is now time for wise words and calm heads,” Mr Byrne told members of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.
“We need to work together to look at a route map to normality because that seems to be the opportunity before us, to step back from the brink in terms of community tension.”
Ms Foster made her own appeal for calm following a meeting of the Stormont executive, though she stressed that anger would grow unless the concerns of unionists were addressed.
“We will have to find a way forward, that’ll have to be found quickly because the disruption is causing community tensions and of course we do want everyone to stay calm and we do want people to act through constitutional politics but if they’re being ignored then they become more angry and even more tense,” she said.
Ms Foster has called for the replacement of the protocol, which she said “has not worked, cannot work” and has damaged and disturbed “the delicate political balance and relationships in Northern Ireland”.
But Mr Coveney told BBC Radio Ulster: “That’s unrealistic from Arlene Foster.
“The protocol isn’t going to be changed, this is about implementation and the flexibilities that are there.”
Mr Coveney acknowledged that there had been “problems” with the implementation of the arrangements, but blamed Britain for failing to provide EU observers with access to data on trade movements as promised.
And he said: “The EU isn’t going to respond on the basis of unilateral demands or threats of consequences if they don’t give the British government what they want.
“There needs to be real engagement that has begun in relation to what’s possible within the parameters of the protocol.”
Mr Johnson told MPs on Wednesday that the government was ready to do “everything we need to do” to ensure there is no barrier to trade, including by invoking Article 16 of the protocol to suspend some of its provisions.
In talks with EU vice-president Maros Sefcovic on Wednesday, cabinet minster Michael Gove demanded the extension to January 2023 of grace periods to smooth supermarket supply chains, currently due to expire in April.
After discussions which both sides characterised as “constructive”, Mr Sefcovic is due to travel to London for further talks next week.
But Mr Coveney said that the terms of the protocol were the result of the Brexit negotiation stance taken by Mr Johnson, and would not be substantially altered.
“This isn’t something that’s being imposed on Northern Ireland by the European Union,” he said. “It’s something that was agreed and negotiated as a consequence of the kind of Brexit that the British government advocated and wanted, and was also supported in doing so by the DUP.”
In a message to hard Brexiteers, he added: “You’ve got to own the consequences of your own decisions. If you force a certain type of Brexit, then that has consequences.
“And when the problems that all of us had been warning would flow from that kind of Brexit, actually happen in reality, you’ve got to take responsibility for that.
“I’m not suggesting that there aren’t some issues that need to be resolved and some very real problems for businesses in Northern Ireland that we need to work on solutions to solve.
“But the core issue here is that this is the result of Brexit, not the result of the protocol. The protocol is about providing solutions to the disruption that Brexit actually forces on everybody.”