The EU must back up its words about showing flexibility on the Northern Ireland Protocol with actions, Brandon Lewis has said.
The Northern Ireland Secretary made clear the Government would act to “rectify” the “big disruption” caused by the post-Brexit Irish Sea trading arrangements.
Mr Lewis blamed the problems attributed to the Protocol on the EU’s “purist” implementation.
However, Ireland’s premier Micheal Martin insisted EU leaders had no desire to implement any trade restrictions that “don’t make sense” and were willing to resolve the dispute over the Protocol.
Taoiseach Mr Martin said the UK had to show a similar willingness to find workable solutions and expressed concern that “domestic politics” in Britain was getting in the way of that.
Their comments come amid ongoing talks between the UK and EU to hammer out ways to reduce the burden of red tape required to move goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Mr Lewis told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday: “We’ve got to make sure that we are delivering for people in Northern Ireland, that we get the flexibility so that people in Northern Ireland have the same experience as they would anywhere else in the United Kingdom in terms of being able to receive products and goods.
“Now that’s a two-way thing and the EU needs to show the flexibility that they keep talking about.”
The Protocol, which was agreed by the EU and UK as a way to keep the land border on the island of Ireland free-flowing, has created a series of new checks and restrictions on goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.
A prohibition on GB chilled meats entering Northern Ireland is due to come into force this week, though the EU has indicated a willingness to grant a UK request to extend a temporary exemption period from the ban for a further three months to provide space to try to find an alternative solution.
Mr Lewis later told Times Radio that he was “cautiously optimistic” that the three-month extension would be granted however he said, as of Sunday, the UK had not yet had a formal response from the EU on the request.
“We’re coming very close up against the deadline now and we’ve not yet formally heard back from the EU,” he said.
“They need to come back to us. I am hopeful they will come back in a positive way.”
Mr Martin indicated the EU would respond favourably but he said the UK Government would need so show “reciprocity” in working to resolve the issues with the Protocol.
He said there was a “willingness” among EU leaders to find resolutions.
“They don’t want to be imposing restrictions that don’t make sense, but they want to see that similar sense of resolve from the United Kingdom Government as well and I’ve made this point to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson,” Mr Martin told RTE.
The Taoiseach suggested that “domestic politics” in the UK had hampered efforts to reach consensus.
“I think sometimes domestic politics can get in the way in terms of what’s appealing in terms of articulation of various issues about Europe in Britain,” he said.
Mr Martin said he had a good personal relationship with Mr Johnson but declined to say whether he trusted the UK Prime Minister.
The UK/EU talks are playing out as tensions among Northern Ireland loyalists mount over the arrangements they claim have driven a constitutional wedge between the region and the rest of the UK.
There are concerns that loyalist anger could boil over during Northern Ireland’s sensitive loyal order parading season during the summer.
European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic is due to appear before a Stormont committee on Monday to face questions on the EU’s stance on the Protocol.
Speaking to the BBC, Mr Lewis again acknowledged that a tweet he sent when the Protocol came into force at the start of 2021, in which he declared that there was no sea border, had “not aged well”.
“Actually on the 1st of January we were very clear that we wanted to have no sea border and what’s happened since then is what we’ve seen is the implementation of the Protocol, the outworking of it, the purist way the EU want to see it, has meant that we’ve seen disruption in Northern Ireland, that not only isn’t what people foresaw but goes against the Protocol itself – that’s why we need flexible solutions,” he said.
Mr Lewis said while there was not a sea border by the traditional definition of what a border meant, he acknowledged there were barriers to trade.
“If you’ve travelled to Northern Ireland, as I do regularly, when you go through the airports, you’re not going through a border in the sense that anybody expects the border, but I’m not denying the fact there is big disruption in Northern Ireland to businesses and consumers.
“We need to rectify that and we will do that.”