The British government is likely to resist increasing pressure from the DUP for it to override the Northern Ireland protocol because of trade disruption between Britain and Northern Ireland, senior sources have said.
With a number of Northern Ireland stores confirming there have been delays in receiving some products and with many anecdotal reports of empty shelves, unionist politicians have called for action to safeguard the flow of goods from Britain to the North.
Companies such as Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda confirmed during the past week that they were experiencing delays in getting some products into Northern Ireland from Britain.
Marks & Spencer said on Sunday it was not experiencing problems in transporting goods from Britain to the North and that “stores were receiving regular deliveries this week”.
The company, however, has as a result of the protocol withdrawn about 300 products from a total range of 6,500 products it normally sells in Northern Ireland. This was done to ease what some traders have described as a “very complicated customs process” due to the protocol.
The Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken on Sunday said the British government's response to the problem was "woeful". He called for the Northern Assembly, which is not due to sit this week, to convene in the coming days to address the issue.
The DUP in particular has been pushing hard for the British government to unilaterally invoke a mechanism to breach the protocol because of damage to the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland.
On Wednesday North Antrim DUP MP Ian Paisley said London should trigger Article 16 of the protocol that allows the EU or the UK to "unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures" if its application leads to "serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist" or to diversion of trade.
On Friday his colleague, Upper Bann MP Carla Lockhart, wrote to Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis urging him to apply Article 16.
She said the “knock-on consequences” of the protocol were being “seen in our supermarkets, with more and more empty shelves and products being rationed or deemed unavailable”.
On Saturday the DUP Minister for Agriculture Edwin Poots said the difficulties were due to the protocol supported by "SF, SDLP and Alliance".
He said he met senior members of the British government “to highlight the scale of the problem and urged them to take steps up to and including invoking Article 16 as it is evident that the protocol is damaging Northern Ireland at the economic and societal level”.
Sinn Féin and SDLP politicians such as Martina Anderson and Colum Eastwood responded that the DUP helped create the problem by its support for Brexit.
“You and other Brexiteers caused this unmitigated disaster. If you didn’t know this was going to happen because of Brexit, you were asleep at the wheel,” said Foyle MLA Ms Anderson.
Mr Eastwood said the DUP had created the problem so they should “own it”.
Alliance North Down MP Stephen Farry said people should beware of those "offering populist simplistic solutions" and that Article 16 was not a remedy. He said the "only route is for the UK and EU to find solutions together".
While there is no doubt about empty shelves in some stores, others have downplayed the extent of the problem. Stephen Kelly of Manufacturing NI in a personal tweet said there would not be long-term difficulties because "our retailers, hauliers and manufacturers get stuff done".
‘Resilient’ food supply chain
A British government spokeswoman said the “UK has a large, diverse and highly resilient food supply chain” and the “flow of goods between GB and NI has been smooth and arrivals of freight have continued to increase substantially over this week”.
“We continue to work closely with traders as they adapt to the new arrangements,” she said.
While Northern Secretary Mr Lewis has not responded directly, informed sources said he was unlikely to accede to the DUP demand for Article 16 to be invoked – a move that could create North-South trade difficulties.
One senior source said Mr Lewis was likely to take the line that there was no need for “needless panic and uncertainty among consumers” and that his focus was on “ensuring that goods continue to flow” between Britain and Northern Ireland.