Ireland’s Premier Micheal Martin has spoken to the European Commission’s president to express concerns over EU plans to block the supply of Covid-19 vaccinations into Northern Ireland.
In an unexpected move on Friday, the European Union triggered Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol on Brexit, in a bid to prevent Northern Ireland from being used as a back door to funnel coronavirus vaccine from the bloc into the rest of the UK.
It comes amid the ongoing row between the EU and vaccine supplier AstraZeneca over the number of vaccines made available to the bloc.
Taoiseach Mr Martin spoke to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Friday evening to discuss the matter.
A government spokesperson said: “We are aware of the issue and the Taoiseach is currently in discussions with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to express our concerns.”
Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney tweeted: “We are working with the EU Commission to try to resolve this issue and protect the integrity and operation of the NI Protocol.”
Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster branded the EU’s triggering of Article 16 an “incredible act of hostility”.
Mrs Foster spoke to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove about the issue on Friday evening, and called for a “robust response” from the UK Government.
The protocol, which is part of the Brexit withdrawal deal, normally allows for free movement of goods from the EU into Northern Ireland.
Under the terms of the protocol, goods should be able to move freely between the EU and Northern Ireland as the region remains in the single market for goods and still operates under EU customs rules.
The EU has triggered Article 16 of the protocol to temporarily place export controls on this movement in respect of vaccines.
We are working with the EU Commission to try to resolve this issue and protect the integrity and operation of the NI Protocol. https://t.co/noTL49v4Go
— Simon Coveney (@simoncoveney) January 29, 2021
It comes amid a deepening row over the allocation of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after the company announced delays to its EU operations.
The move to activate Article 16 will frustrate any effort to use Northern Ireland as a back door to bring vaccines into Great Britain.
Mrs Foster said: “By triggering Article 16 in this manner, the European Union has once again shown it is prepared to use Northern Ireland when it suits their interests but in the most despicable manner – over the provision of a vaccine which is designed to save lives.
“At the first opportunity, the EU has placed a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over the supply chain of the coronavirus vaccine.”
The regulation means Northern Ireland will be considered an export territory for the purposes of vaccine sent from the EU/the Republic of Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s vaccines arrive from the rest of the UK at present so those will be unaffected.
DUP leader Mrs Foster added: “With the European Union using Article 16 in such an aggressive and most shameful way, it is now time for our Government to step up.
“I will be urging the Prime Minister to act and use robust measures including Article 16 to advance the interests of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.”
The DUP has previously pressed the British Government to invoke the Article 16 mechanism because of disruption to the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the move undermines progress made to defend the interests of the island.
He said: “The disproportionate decision to invoke Article 16 of the Ireland Protocol by the European Commission is a grave error in judgment that undermines the work that has taken place over the last five years to defend the interests of people on this island.
“We face a common threat. Our response to this virus, and to the supply of vaccines, should be characterised by our common values.”