Calls have been made to scrap part of the Brexit deal relating to Northern Ireland, as the Prime Minister warned Brussels he will act to prevent trade barriers being put up in the Irish Sea.
First Minister Arlene Foster said the Northern Ireland Protocol risked the country’s “political and economic links” to the UK and called for it to be replaced.
The agreement on Northern Ireland was seen as a way of resolving the main sticking point in Brexit negotiations – the Irish border – and sees checks focused on goods traded between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and allowing them to move freely on the island of Ireland.
Concerns over the protocol and its impact on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK were exacerbated last week when Article 16 was briefly triggered to close the border to exports of the coronavirus vaccine from the Republic.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic is due in the UK next week to discuss the issue, and Boris Johnson has not ruled out a reciprocal triggering of the emergency brake, telling MPs: “We will do everything we need to do, whether legislatively or indeed by triggering Article 16 of the protocol, to ensure that there is no barrier down the Irish Sea.”
Mr Sefcovic and Michael Gove held a meeting with the First Minister and deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland on Wednesday and, in a statement following the meeting, the Cabinet Office minister and his EU counterpart said they would “work intensively to find solutions to outstanding issues”.
However, writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mrs Foster said Mr Johnson had committed to protect the UK internal market, and “must now back up those words with tangible actions that protect the integrity of the whole of the United Kingdom”.
The DUP leader wrote: “The Northern Ireland Protocol has not worked, cannot work and in light of our proposals to the Government, needs to be replaced.
“Indeed, across Northern Ireland there is growing anger at the current arrangements. The delicate political balance and relationships in Northern Ireland have been damaged and disturbed by the Protocol.”
Ian Paisley Jr, also of the DUP, echoed his party leader’s words, telling BBC’s Newsnight: “The first 34 days of this year have been absolute and total chaos for the citizens of Northern Ireland.
“This has been an unmitigated disaster. I can’t imagine that’s what they planned but this is how it has worked out and therefore we’ve got to fix it and fix it fast.”
Separately, physical inspections on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, which are required under the protocol, have been suspended amid threats and intimidation of staff.
Police have insisted there is no evidence that loyalist paramilitaries are involved in the sinister campaign, instead blaming disgruntled individuals and small groups.
The Protocol on IE/NI is a cornerstone of the WA and the only way to protect Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all dimensions, protecting peace & stability on the island of Ireland. Has always been EU's absolute priority, as I'll reconfirm to @michaelgove @DUPleader @moneillsf.
— Maroš Šefčovič🇪🇺 (@MarosSefcovic) February 3, 2021
Unionists and loyalists are deeply unhappy with the new arrangements, which came into force at the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31, believing the protocol has created a barrier between the region and the rest of the UK.
Sinn Fein’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said Mr Sefcovic was keen on finding a solution and did not intend to cause problems when Article 16 was triggered.
She said: “He was very gracious in his apology around that and recognised that it caused some tensions
“I accept that apology in the way in which it was intended.
“There are flexibilities inbuilt (in the protocol) which he thinks haven’t even had a chance to work out yet.”
Ms O’Neill welcomed his commitment to travel to the UK to find ways to resolve the issues that have emerged, adding that she believed it was a “very pragmatic and very constructive way” to move forward.