Britain's cabinet office minister Michael Gove has urged MPs to consider the benefits of the Northern Ireland protocol as well as its "significant challenges".
Mr Gove said that David Frost, the minister responsible for relations with the European Union, was working through those challenges.
“But it also is the case, as a number of business organisations have pointed out in Northern Ireland, that a properly functioning protocol can bring benefits. It is important that we deal with the challenges but also keep an eye on the opportunities, and I think David has been right in his approach which is to stress to the EU that they have a responsibility to help deal with it,” he said.
“There are folk in the EU who have a tendency to see the Good Friday Agreement just in terms of North/South relations and they haven’t appreciated both the balance within Northern Ireland and the importance of east/west relations as well.”
Mr Gove was speaking after Lord Frost suggested that Britain could unilaterally suspend the protocol by triggering Article 16 on the basis that it is causing trade diversion, one of the grounds for suspension identified in the text of the agreement.
“The problem we’ve got is that the boundary for trade purposes is proving more of a deterrent to trade and more of a generation of trade diversion than many people expected,” he said in an interview with The Spectator.
Lord Frost blamed the EU’s threat to invoke Article 16 to protect vaccine supplies in January for changing the way unionists looked at the protocol. He said he negotiated the protocol in 2019 under parliamentary duress from Westminster, admitting that he was taken by surprise by the effect of the agreement he signed up to.
“At the time we expected to be able to get some facilitations that we didn’t get. We expected there would be a trusted trader scheme, for example. We expected, like every other free trade agreement, there’d be an equivalence mechanism in there. None of that we’ve got,” he said.
Lord Frost has identified the start of the marching season in Northern Ireland as a target date for agreeing new arrangements with the EU for implementing the protocol. He caused controversy last week by meeting members of the Loyalist Communities Council, which includes representatives of paramilitary organisations.
Labour MP Karin Smyth told Mr Gove that the ignorance about the details of the protocol shown by British government ministers was shocking.
“It was perhaps surprising that Lord Frost said last week that the government and ministers perhaps didn’t understand the protocol that they had indeed drafted,” she said
“I agree with Lord Frost; the level of ignorance amongst many ministers speaking at the despatch box about the UK not understanding the very different situation of Northern Ireland has really been quite shocking. How can you support civil servants understanding this complicated relationship when, with due respect, UK ministers are being really quite ignorant about the special circumstances of Northern Ireland.”