EU-UK negotiators to resume talks on Northern Ireland protocol

Boris Johnson earlier threatened to invoke Article 16 unless his demands were met

British and European Union negotiators have agreed to resume talks on the Northern Ireland protocol next week after Boris Johnson threatened to invoke Article 16 to override its terms unless his demands are met.

British cabinet office minister Michael Gove, European Commission vice-president Maros Sevcovic and Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill met by video conference on Wednesday evening.

During the meeting, Mr Sevcovic described the difficulties faced by businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland as teething problems and suggested that Britain could make more use of the flexibility built into the protocol.

Under the protocol, all products are normally permitted to be exported from the EU to Northern Ireland without checks, as Northern Ireland remains in the single market for goods and continues to operate under EU custom rules.

The protocol was designed to avoid a return of checkpoints along the Irish Border and minimise potential disruption of cross-border trade.

However, amid a row over vaccine delivery shortfalls, the EU on January 29th invoked A rticle 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol which allows the EU or UK to unilaterally suspend aspects of its operations if either side considers that aspect to be causing “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.

The European Commission reversed the move shortly afterwards.

In a letter to Mr Sevcovic ahead of the meeting, Mr Gove said the Commission’s action last Friday in briefly activating Article 16 had profoundly undermined the operation of the protocol and cross-community confidence in it.

He called for a grace period exempting supermarkets from some checks, which is due to end on March 31st, to be extended at least until January 1st, 2023.

He called for a similar extension to waivers allowing chilled meat products and parcels to move easily from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Other demands included a call for the Commission to authorise Ireland to agree a bilateral arrangement with Britain on the movement of pets between the islands.

Restore confidence

"I must make clear that the UK Government seeks urgent resolution of these problems in the context of our obligations to seek commonly acceptable solutions, and recognising the pressing need to restore confidence among people in Northern Ireland that the Belfast 'Good Friday' Agreement is being respected in all its dimensions.

“If it is not possible to agree a way forward in the way we propose, then the UK will consider using all instruments at its disposal,” he wrote.

“In all cases, what is now required is political, not technical, solutions. A primarily technical approach led to what I know you agree was a grave error on 29 January. Northern Ireland would not be where it is today if the negotiations leading to the 1998 Agreement had been done on a technical and legalistic basis.

“What is required now is an urgent reset to put the Belfast ‘Good Friday’ Agreement, the people of Northern Ireland, and indeed the island of Ireland.”

In the House of Commons, Mr Johnson said he was willing to invoke Article 16 if the EU did not quickly accede to Britain’s demands to change the way the protocol is implemented.

“We will do everything we need to do, whether legislatively or indeed by invoking Article 16 of the protocol, to ensure that there is no barrier down the Irish Sea,” he said.

After the virtual meeting, Ms O’Neill said “calm and steady heads” were needed to make the protocol work and she contrasted the approach of Mr Sevcovic with that of Mr Johnson.

Ms O’Neill also said Mr Sefcovic was “emphatic” there EU had “no intention to cause any political difficulty” regarding the potential application of the politically-sensitive Article 16 last week.

Teething problems

“The vice-president of the EU Commission was very clear in saying ‘hands up, we made a huge error last week’ and accepted that,” she told the BBC.

“However, Boris Johnson’s approach today is equally reckless. You don’t fight fire with fire. Take a step back, show mature political leadership and work our way through what are described as teething problems, kinks, whatever you want to call them.”

She welcomed the commitment by Mr Sefcovic to travel to London next week to discuss the issues that have emerged around the Northern Ireland protocol, describing it as a “very pragmatic and very constructive” way forward.

She said he was “very clear in terms of the rigorous implementation of the protocol and expects that to be adhered to but he did recognise we’re only six weeks into the protocol”, adding that “here are flexibilities inbuilt which he thinks haven’t even had a chance to work out yet.”

Speaking following the meeting, the DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said the difficulties with the protocol were "not just short-term, they are long term.

“That’s why we need not just a short-term fix or tinkering around the edges of this or kicking the can down the road,” he said.

He said there had to be a “permanent solution that will ensure that we continue to have unfettered access to the UK market and that the EU is able to protect its market, and we need that accommodation reached as soon as possible.”

Mr Donaldson also said the protocol was damaging the relationship between Britain and Northern Ireland.

“If we’re going to see the East-West, Great Britain-Northern Ireland relationship diminished then we can’t be expected to see a situation where there are normal North-South relationships because the two are inter-twined - one impacts on the other.

"Therefore we need the Irish Government to recognise that it is the totality of the relationships here including the crucial relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK that has to be preserved and protected as well as protecting the EU single market."

Separately, the North's Department of Agriculture has not yet made a decision regarding the return to work of employees at Larne and Belfast ports who were withdrawn because of concerns over their safety.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) subsequently said there was "absolutely no information" loyalist paramilitaries were involved in threats or intimidation towards staff carrying out checks at the ports, saying those responsible were "individuals or small groups."

In a statement, a spokesman said the Department “continues to liaise with the PSNI and other partner organisations in considering when physical checks may resume. Any decision will be based upon a formal threat assessment.”

Additional reporting – PA