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Ireland has contingency plan for EU-UK trade war: Varadkar

Ireland’s government has met to discuss contingency planning in case of a European Union trade war with the UK, deputy prime minister Leo Varadkar said on Tuesday.

London is currently at loggerheads with Brussels over the implementation of post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland, which it claims are unworkable.

The two sides are locked in talks to try to resolve the dispute, with the EU warning of “serious consequences” if the UK unilaterally suspends the trading protocol.

“We’re making preparations,” said Varadkar, who as prime minister in 2019 was credited with convincing UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to strike a divorce deal with the EU.

“We had a meeting yesterday (Monday) of the Cabinet sub-committee on Brexit, essentially to dust down and restart our contingency preparations should we get into difficulty,” he told RTE radio.

No one wants to see the EU halt the wider trade deal with the UK but if London triggers the Article 16 suspension clause of the protocol, Brussels may have “no option” but to introduce “balancing measures”, he said.

“I really hope Britain doesn’t go down this road,” Varadkar added, warning that it “potentially undoes” the Brexit deal and would be bad for the UK, Northern Ireland and Ireland.

The leader of Northern Ireland’s biggest pro-UK party, the Democratic Unionists, said the UK was right to make plans to invoke Article 16 but a trade war benefited no one.

Jeffrey Donaldson said his meeting with UK Brexit minister David Frost on Monday “certainly suggested that from the UK’s perspective, there’s a still a couple of more weeks left in these negotiations”.

But he played down the prospect of success, unless the EU came up with “firmer” and “more realistic” proposals.

“I think a positive outcome in terms of an agreed solution is unlikely and, in those circumstances, I do expect the UK government to take unilateral action to address the difficulties created by the Northern Ireland Protocol,” he added.

– ‘On the table’ –

Frost, who last week said time was “running out” on talks and that Article 16 was “very much on the table”, is due to meet European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic in London this Friday.

The EU has submitted a raft of proposals to modify the protocol, including eliminating checks on most goods heading to Northern Ireland from mainland Great Britain — England, Scotland and Wales.

But the UK’s insistence that an international arbiter replace the European Court of Justice to rule on disputes is a step too far for Brussels.

The protocol effectively kept the British-run province, which has the UK’s only land border with the EU, in the European customs union and single market.

Checks were designed to prevent goods entering the bloc by the back door via member state Ireland.

But unionist parties in Northern Ireland oppose the arrangement, arguing it threatens the province’s place in the wider UK, and there has been unrest from hardliners.

Two buses have been set on fire on fire in unionist areas of Northern Ireland in the last two weeks.

A Queen’s University Belfast poll found in late October, however, that 52 percent of respondents in Northern Ireland saw the protocol as a “good thing, compared to 48 against.

Complicating the issue is the need to keep open the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland — a key plank of the 1998 peace deal that ended decades of violence over British rule — that neither side wants to jeopardise.

UK-EU relations have been soured further by a separate row with Paris, which is unhappy at the number of licences London has allocated to French trawlers to fish in British waters.