Brexit

France warns UK not to 'play' with Northern Ireland Brexit deal

Signs reading 'No Irish Sea border' and 'Ulster is British, no internal UK Border' are seen affixed to a lamp post at the Port of Larne, Northern Ireland, March 6, 2021. Picture taken March 6, 2021.
Signs reading 'No Irish Sea border' and 'Ulster is British, no internal UK Border' are seen affixed to a lamp post at the Port of Larne, Northern Ireland, March 6, 2021. Picture taken March 6, 2021. REUTERS - CLODAGH KILCOYNE

France's European affairs minister has warned Britain not to play games with special post-Brexit trading rules for Northern Ireland, as fears rise of a summer of violence in the province.

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Speaking in The Hague on Saturday, Clement Beaune urged London to be "responsible" over the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, which keeps the province in the EU's single market and customs union despite the UK's departure from the bloc.

"We cannot accept that there is political game with such a sensitive issue," Beaune said in an interview following talks with the Dutch foreign minister.

"This is a central piece of European stability, you cannot play with this. We will never play with that. But we cannot accept that the protocol is taken lightly by any part," he added.

Fears of sectarian violence ahead of 'marching season'

Tensions have been mounting in Northern Ireland over the so-called "protocol" that came into effect at the start of 2021, with the worst rioting in years breaking out in April and First Minister Arlene Foster announcing her resignation.

Northern Ireland is still deeply divided between pro-UK mainly Protestant unionists and pro-Ireland largely Catholic nationalists, despite a 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of violence over British rule.

Unionists believe the protocol threatens Northern Ireland's status in the UK and strengthen the prospect of union with the Republic of Ireland.

On Monday, British Brexit minister David Frost urged the EU to compromise over the protocol before Northern Ireland enters a tense summer of events marking the Protestant ascendancy over Catholics.

Fears have grown that tensions could soar again around 12 July when unionists commemorate events in the late 17th century that entrenched Protestant rule over the northern part of Catholic Ireland.

Strengthening ties between Paris and Dublin

But Beaune, who met Ireland's Foreign Minister Simon Coveney in Dublin earlier this week along with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, said London should not try to argue in favour of scrapping the protocol. 

"The protocol is not a problem. The protocol is the solution to border problems that were created by Brexit," Beaune said.

On Thursday, Coveney warned Britain that unilaterally overriding the rules would be a "disaster".

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