Grace period extension for checks on goods urged by Gove

Johnson’s idea of mere ‘teething problems’ for NI trade contradicted by UK minister

Britain’s cabinet office minister Michael Gove: wants to work with the European Commission to resolve difficulties created by the protocol rather than accede to unionist demands to walk away from it. Photograph: PRU/AFP

British cabinet office minister Michael Gove has called for grace periods for some checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to be extended, reversing his government's stated policy that no extension would be needed. And he contradicted Boris Johnson's characterisation as "teething problems" of difficulties faced by businesses and consumers because of the Northern Ireland problem.

“In the short term, there are a number of issues which I would not describe as teething problems. They are significant issues which bear on the lives of people in Northern Ireland which do need to be resolved. We do need to make sure that grace periods are extended, we do need to make sure that supermarkets and other traders can continue, as they are at the moment, to be able to supply consumers with the goods that they need,” he told the House of Commons.

Protocol implementation

The prime minister told the Commons liaison committee last month that businesses trading across the Irish Sea were facing "teething problems" and that the situation was "far better than some people had perhaps expected, things are much smoother". Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis told the Brexit committee the following week that the government did not plan to seek an extension to grace periods covering health export certificates for food and animal goods, chilled meat exports and customs declarations for parcels crossing the Irish Sea.

Mr Gove was responding to an urgent question from Labour's shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh on the implementation of the protocol in the light of the European Commission's threat last week to suspend it by invoking article 16 and the withdrawal of border staff in Larne and Belfast after reports of intimidation. He said the commission's action had eroded trust and that urgent action was needed to restore confidence and limit the damage done by what he described as a reckless move.


"Article 16 exists for good reasons but it is meant to be invoked only after notification, only after all other options are exhausted and in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. None of these conditions were met. Worse still, neither the UK government representing the people of Northern Ireland nor the Irish Government, an EU member, were informed," he said.

‘Anger and concern’

“The commission’s move has provoked anger and concern across all parties and throughout civil society in Northern Ireland as well as international condemnation.”

Mr Gove, who negotiates on behalf of Britain with the EU on the implementation of the protocol, will hold a video conference on Wednesday with commission vice-president Maros Sevcovic and Northern Ireland's First Minister and Deputy First Minister Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill. He made clear that he wanted to work with the European Commission to resolve the difficulties created by the protocol rather than accede to unionist demands to walk away from it.

The DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson said the protocol had upset "the very delicate balance of relationships" that were provided for under the Belfast Agreement.

“There is no unionist supporting this protocol. What we need is not tinkering around the edges but a recognition that Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market must be restored, and this protocol is preventing that from happening,” he said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times