European Commission has had no discussions with UK on ‘mutual enforcement’ plan

James Ward, PA

The European Commission vice-president says he has not discussed UK proposals that would restore the border on the island of Ireland.

A report in the Sunday Telegraph said Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove is now considering an alternate “mutual enforcement” plan to the Northern Ireland protocol on Brexit.

It would remove the border from the Irish Sea and restore the land border in Ireland, and would require the UK and EU “to apply checks at the same level as each other”.

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EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic leaving EU House, London (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

But speaking on Sunday, Maros Sefcovic said his discussions with Mr Gove this week had focused on the implementation of the protocol.

He told RTE’s The Week In Politics: “What we discussed with Michael Gove was very much focused on the implementation of the protocol.

“For us what was a priority is the prosperity of the island of Ireland, unconditional support for peace and, of course, avoiding the hard border.

“These are the three key parameters which been the primary objective for signing up and negotiating the protocol.

“We are looking into the old possibilities, how to make sure that this would work.”

Mr Sefcovic said the use of trusted trader schemes, simplifying export health certificates and extending the grace period for traders were measures being considered to smooth the implementation of the protocol.

He said there were many “benefits” for Northern Ireland which need to be explored.

He said: “I believe that we found a very unique solution where Northern Ireland is part of the single market, and at the same time off course it is the part of the internet UK market.

“So I think there is the unique possibility for Northern Ireland to develop new jobs, new growth and to have really, a very, very special place in both in single market and also in the internal UK market.”

Mr Sefcovic apologised for the EU’s recent attempt to trigger Article 16 of the protocol to prevent the flow of vaccines into Northern Ireland.

The move has led to Unionist calls for Westminster to now invoke the clause, which would create a border on the island of Ireland.

He said: “The bottom line is that mistakes were made in the process leading up to the decision, and we all deeply regret it.

“But in the end, and it was not more than three hours.

“They got it right and I really would like to reassure all of you, and also the people of Northern Ireland, that we would always do our utmost to protect peace on the island, just as we did throughout the whole Brexit process.”

He said the EU and the UK have a “joint responsibility” to implement the protocol.

He added: “I think the same goes for Michael Gove, that he is also fully aware of his responsibilities and the needs to come up with the solutions which can be supported.”

Earlier on Sunday, the DUP leader in Westminster, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson claimed the most “natural solution” was to put the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

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DUP’s Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said the most “natural” place to put a border is between the UK and the Republic (Brian Lawless/PA)

He told Newstalk’s On The Record with Gavan Reilly: “The most natural place in the world to put checks is on the border between two sovereign states.

“You go around the world and you look at what customs arrangements apply, I’m sorry, but it’s a nonsense to suggest that the natural place to put them is not on the border between two sovereign states.

“That is the case everywhere across the world, where there are customs checks they occur on the border.”

Sir Jeffrey said his favoured approach was the use of technological solutions to avoid the return of a hard border.

Such an approach was frequently mooted during four years of Brexit talks, but no such solutions were found.

Meanwhile, a collection of loyalists in North Down and Ards has written to all local MPs and MLAs warning that “no form of Irish sea border will ever be tolerated”.

It calls for “all necessary steps to be taken to resist the imposition of an economic United Ireland”, and calls for Article 16 to be triggered and for the Northern Ireland protocol to be removed entirely.

A call by the DUP to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol is to be debated at Westminster later this month.

More than 100,000 people signed a petition calling for the emergency move by the party within 24 hours.

The UK and EU have reiterated their “full commitment” to the new arrangements governing Great Britain-to-Northern Ireland trade post-Brexit.

Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic held talks on Thursday night aimed at finding resolution to issues with the protocol’s first six weeks of operation.

A joint statement issued at the conclusion said Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic had a “frank but constructive discussion” in which they agreed to “spare no effort” in implementing solutions.

The two politicians agreed to convene the joint committee tasked with implementation of the protocol no later than February 24 to provide “the necessary political steer”.

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