Government brands UK move to delay checks on goods entering North from Britain ‘deeply unhelpful’
Northern Secretary confirms move despite checks being required by Northern Ireland protocol after Brexit
Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said: “A unilateral announcement is deeply unhelpful”. File image: Gareth Chaney/Collins
The UK’s Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has expressed disappointment at the British government’s move to unilaterally delay checks on goods entering the North from Britain, which are required under the Northern Ireland protocol
Mr Martin on Wednesday night said he was “disappointed that the British government has today announced unilateral action relating to the Protocol”, complaining that “unilateral action undermines the trust necessary to reach agreement”.
“Issues relating to the Protocol should be resolved by the UK and EU working together, through the Joint Committee,” he said.
He went on to tell his private weekly parliamentary party meeting that the UK’s move to delay checks on goods going into Northern Ireland was “unilateral” as well as “unhelpful and a cause for concern”, and he urged that issues be worked through “in a calm way”.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney described the British government’s move as “deeply unhelpful”.
Mr Coveney said he had spoken earlier today with Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis and the new Cabinet minister for EU-UK relations Lord David Frost to convey the Irish Government’s position.
“A unilateral announcement is deeply unhelpful to building the relationship of trust and partnership that is central to the implementation of the Protocol,” Mr Coveney said on Wednesday evening in a statement.
He said he had made clear to the British government “my regret that the UK had moved in a unilateral way, rather than working in continued partnership with the EU in accordance with the EU-UK joint statements of 11 and 24 February.”
He said that the UK’s move undermines a commitment made by the British government two weeks ago at a meeting of the committee charged with overseeing the Northern Ireland protocol.
Mr Coveney said it is “ vital that the current challenges are addressed in a spirit of cooperation and partnership and through the agreed mechanisms, so that Northern Ireland can benefit from the considerable positive opportunities created by the Protocol.”
Meanwhile, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic tweeted that he would be speaking to David Frost on Wednesday night on the implementation of EU/UK agreements.
I'll be speaking to @DavidGHFrost tonight on the implementation of 🇪🇺🇬🇧agreements. I'll be raising our strong concerns on the respect of the IE/NI Protocol, following today's announcements.— Maroš Šefčovič🇪🇺 (@MarosSefcovic) March 3, 2021
As ever, we remain firm on our political and legal obligations.https://t.co/iKgNEaWdeM
“ I’ll be raising our strong concerns on the respect of the IE/NI Protocol, following today’s announcements. As ever, we remain firm on our political and legal obligations.”
The North’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin said she believed the British government was “jeopardising” the protections for people in Northern Ireland that had been achieved through the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol
“It doesn’t surprise me, their actions don’t surprise me,” she told the BBC. “It’s more of the same from the British government, but what all efforts need to be on are actually using the Joint Committee for the EU side [AND]the British government to work together to find solutions to the issues that need to be resolved here.”
However, the First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster backed the UK government’s move, saying that the end of March was approaching which was a “critical point” in relation to some grace periods.
“Europe has so far refused to deal with that issue, and it would have caused a huge amount of problems for us at our ports, so there was a need to deal with that, so that’s good,” she said, adding that it indicated that “they can go further and we need to see permanent solutions.”
The Alliance MP Stephen Farry said that while his party had successfully argued for the introduction of grace periods in December and wanted to see the current adjustments extended, concerns remained over the UK’s unilateral action.
“While this announcement from the UK Government may be superficially attractive in the short-term, it may bring long-term consequences,” he said.
“The legal basis under the Withdrawal Agreement for such unilateral steps is at best unclear. One set of unilateral moves may invite other such steps,” he warned.
“With further meetings of the Joint Committee scheduled for later this month, these actions from the UK government short-cut a process that should have produced mutual agreement on the way forward,” he said.
Earlier, it emerged that the British government had unilaterally extended grace periods delaying checks required by the Northern Ireland protocol on some goods moving from Great Britain to the North.
Mr Lewis said exemptions on EU health certificates and checks on sausages and other chilled meats, which were due to end on March 31st, would be extended until at least October 1st.
“As part of the pragmatic and proportionate implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the Government is taking several temporary operational steps to avoid disruptive cliff edges as engagement with the EU continues through the Joint Committee.
“These recognise that appropriate time must be provided for businesses to implement new requirements, and support the effective flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” he said in a written statement to the House of Commons.
He promised further guidance later this week on parcel movements, and to address “practical problems on soil attached to the movement of plants, seeds, bulbs, vegetables and agricultural machinery”.
The EU-UK joint committee on implementing the protocol is considering Britain’s request for an extension of grace periods until 2023 but the European Commission insists that Britain must make good on commitments on issues such as data sharing before any extensions can be agreed.
Britain’s unilateral step coincides with its former Brexit chief negotiator Lord Frost taking charge of relations with the EU and succeeding Michael Gove as co-chair of the joint committee. Lord Frost favours a more combative approach than Mr Gove, who enjoyed a good relationship with his EU counterpart Mr Sevcovic.
In the House of Commons on Wednesday, Boris Johnson suggested that the unilateral measures could be superseded by an agreement with the EU on how to ease disruption in trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“The position of Northern Ireland within the UK internal market is rock solid and guaranteed. We are making sure that we underscore that with some temporary operational easings in order to protect the market in some areas, such as food supplies, pending further discussions with the EU,” he said.
Earlier, Mr Lewis said the EU’s threat last January to invoke Article 16 to suspend parts of the protocol, which was withdrawn within hours, had undermined cross-community confidence in the agreement. He told MPs that the “temporary operational steps” announced on Wednesday were designed to ensure that people in Northern Ireland are able to continue to have access to products in the way that the protocol envisaged.
“We have been working with businesses and across communities in Northern Ireland over the past year on the development of the guidance notes. In fact, we have been working with businesses since the end of the transition period to ensure that things are delivered in a way that works for them. Our work is informed by businesses so that we can deliver what they need on the ground to deliver for their customers and our constituents right across Northern Ireland,” he said.