The British Labour party has accused Boris Johnson's government of putting political stability in Northern Ireland at risk with its unilateral postponement of plans agreed with the European Union for post-Brexit checks on goods.
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh said that without responsible leadership the customs border in the Irish Sea imposed by the prime minister's Brexit deal always had the potential to unsettle the delicate balance of identities.
“Provocation is not a strategy, and a stop gap is not a solution, so what precisely is the government’s intention? Is it to push the protocol to breaking point, and undermine the cast-iron commitment to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, or is it to find the solutions that businesses are crying out for?”
Ms Haigh was speaking in the House of Commons during a debate on her urgent question to Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis about the government's unilateral extension of grace periods for checks required by the Northern Ireland protocol.
Mr Lewis said the move was lawful, although he was unable to say which part of the protocol the government rested on to authorise its action. And he suggested that the move was comparable to Ireland’s temporary relaxation in January of safety and security declarations on products arriving from Britain.
"We are a trustworthy partner and have always been clear about what we would do and the reasoning for what we are doing. Rather like the Irish Government did a few weeks ago when they took sensible flexibilities, we have taken flexibilities," he said.
The DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed the government's action as a first step but his colleague Gregory Campbell said the implementation of the protocol was creating a level of resentment among unionists that demanded radical action.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the unilateral action left the British government's reputation in tatters across the world and Alliance MP Stephen Farry warned against using Northern Ireland as a pawn in a war of attrition with the EU.
Labour’s Conor McGinn, who is from Co Armagh, said it was time for Mr Lewis to show the responsible leadership required to resolve the issues surrounding the protocol.
“Does the secretary of state think the people of Northern Ireland are stupid? The government said that there would never be a border in the Irish sea; then they signed up to one. Then they pretended it did not exist, but said that even if it did, they were sure it would have no impact anyway,” he said.
“Now they are saying that, actually, there is one, but we can just ignore it. Will [he] stop taking people for fools and start showing the responsible leadership required to sort this out?”