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EU reveals indifference as it takes its threat to North’s food supply to the wire

Commission is oblivious to rare show of Stormont unity

A farcical Stormont deadlock this week over Covid restrictions has obscured a Brexit miracle. Sinn Féin and the DUP found enough common ground to write a joint letter to the European Commission, pleading with it to exempt Northern supermarkets from sea border paperwork.

The Commission is refusing to waive requirements for health certificates on agrifood coming into the North from Britain, threatening price rises and disruption to supplies.

The letter, signed by first ministers Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill, said this "cannot have been the intention of anyone when the Withdrawal Agreement was settled".

The letter notes the committee implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol is meant to use its "best endeavours" to facilitate the North's "integral place in the UK internal market". The first ministers add "we are not asking for anything that would create any form of health risk".


Major food suppliers have echoed these remarks.

An EU-UK trade deal would simplify matters, as the letter acknowledges, but “urgent action to resolve the issues in the Protocol need not and should not be dependent on that process”.

Incredibly, the last joint letter from Sinn Féin and the DUP on Brexit was in August 2016, two months after the EU referendum. Signed by Foster and O'Neill's predecessor Martin McGuinness, and addressed to then UK prime minister Theresa May, it set out five general points on protecting the Northern Ireland economy, including from agrifood barriers.

Both parties heralded it as a sign of their mature relationship. In the three-year collapse of Stormont that followed, this letter was often referred back to wistfully as the dying ember of a golden age – until it emerged it had been written by civil servants as Sinn Féin and the DUP were barely on speaking terms.

By contrast, the latest letter involves both parties making a pointed argument in language clearly hammered out between them.

The distance the DUP moved to agree this can be measured precisely, as Foster followed up the letter by tweeting her own take.

“It is simply not credible nor in good faith” for the EU to say supermarkets cannot be trusted to import goods to Northern Ireland, she posted.

O’Neill maintained a social media silence.


DUP complaints about Brexit invite derision as the party has been so instrumental in causing Brexit. Insisting everything will be fine is often its best recourse.

Sinn Féin has a deep instinct to let Northern Ireland fail. If that leaves unionists twisting in the wind, so much the better. Republicans know indulging this instinct is a losing electoral strategy but Brexit remains a spectacular temptation.

Both parties have apparently decided this is all outweighed by EU behaviour so indefensible, with consequences so serious, they must take a collective stand against it or their own voters will not forgive them should shelves be empty from January 1st.

Obviously, there is a limit to how far the EU can budge at Stormont’s request, especially at the climax of trade negotiations in which Northern Ireland is being used as a pressure point by both sides.

Nobody was expecting Brussels to get straight back to Foster and O’Neill with a promise of exemptions.

It is the curtness of the response that has caused dismay.

The Commission bluntly restated its maximalist position on the sea border as having to “meet EU rules on food safety”, patronisingly adding its rules are there to protect everyone, “including consumers in Northern Ireland”.

There was not the slightest recognition of the significance of Sinn Féin and the DUP writing to it together, or of the impact of dismissing them both.

Stormont’s squabbling machinations might be said to be well below the Commission’s pay-grade, but that is not what the Commission says. It claims to prioritise stability in Northern Ireland and to have a long-held stake in the peace process. It repeated this in its response, saying it takes the concerns raised by supermarkets “very seriously – in the same way we are taking very seriously every single issue regarding Northern Ireland”.

Showing that to be nonsense will have political ramifications.

At first sight, the relationship between Stormont’s main two parties appears bolstered by acquiring a shared opponent. However, Stormont relations are never helped by rising tensions and a looming high-stakes blame game. Plus, the EU has made good relations look futile.

The UK government’s case for the international law-breaking Internal Markets Bill has been strengthened. Among the Bill’s many flaws is that it should be superfluous: the Withdrawal Agreement already has a get-out clause if the sea border causes “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.

That looks less dependable with the Commission ignoring the ‘best endeavours’ clause.

Whatever game London is playing with the Bill, Sinn Féin cannot possibly take its side in a full-scale crisis. Stormont would collapse again.

Does Brussels care? Certainly not as much as its self-righteous negotiating stance pretends.

Brexit may be the UK’s fault but the unquestioning Europhiles who have multiplied among us must realise there is fault to go around.