Aodhan Connolly will hang his hat in Brussels as an EU man

He has spent the past few years hailing the EU’s Maros Sefcovic to his native Slovak to break the ice at yet another virtual meeting on the Irish Sea border.

After nearly three years of championing the position of local business groups seeking to change the Brexit Protocol, Aodhan Connolly has set out to promote this place at the heart of the EU.

The 45-year-old, whose main job for the past 10 years has been running the NI Retail Consortium, is the new head of the Stormont Executive’s Brussels office.

As chair of the NI Business Brexit Task Force, he became the public face of the protocol debate that kept us in the single market for goods post-Brexit.

But it has also added friction to the passage of goods from Britain, creating headaches for many businesses.

A political hot potato, nationalists largely support it while unionists fear it will erode their position in the UK.

He said: ‘I’ve always said you can’t ignore people’s concerns and that’s one thing that annoys me about social media, that there are people who completely dismiss other people’s concerns .

“Whether it’s trade or constitutional position, people should have the right to have their opinion, but we’ve tried to stay out of politics.”

He added that the coalition of business groups he led had become a trusted source on the protocol.

“We are sticking to the facts and being pragmatic, and that’s what we need to see a lot more of, not just on the protocol, but on our future relationship with the EU.” He said a camaraderie had emerged between the band members. And his penchant for languages ​​had helped him engage with Mr Sefcovic, vice-president of the European Commission and EU Brexit negotiator.

“I tried to start my meetings with him with a bit of Slovak, and the first few times he laughed and said, ‘I liked your Slovak but I’m particularly impressed with your Italian accent.

“So the next time, I started speaking Slovak again, and he said to me: ‘It’s better, maybe I should learn a bit of yours.’

“The third time, I started in Slovak, and then he said, ‘Aodhan, can I just return the compliment and just say, what about yiz?’ And it took about five minutes for everyone to pull themselves together.

He said the group had formed to “break the narrative” that the issue of the treatment of Northern Ireland after Brexit was settled by protocol. Instead, it has created business hassles and costs, as well as political unrest.

But he said if issues with the protocol were resolved, it could provide an opportunity for commercial investment by European and US companies.

He said he would take his hat off in tribute to Lynsey Moore, his predecessor in the Brussels office, for maintaining ties despite the pressures of the pandemic.

Mr Connolly became famous for his smart outfit consisting of a tie, waistcoat and hat, and jokingly called his headgear the “Brex-hat”, as it was synonymous with Brexit.

But, as he moves in circles of international diplomacy, he joked: “The Brex hat is retired but then we’ll have a diplo hat.”

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