Trade problems created by the Northern Ireland Protocol need permanent solutions, not sticking plasters, Arlene Foster has said.
The DUP leader and Stormont First Minister restated her demand for the protocol governing GB-to-NI trade post-Brexit to be ditched after the UK and EU reiterated their “full commitment” to the new arrangements.
“Northern Ireland needs freed from the Protocol,” she tweeted. “We must have unfettered trade between GB & NI. It’s time for the Government to step up & protect this part of the United Kingdom with permanent solutions, not sticking plasters. EU must recognise the absence of unionist support.”
Mrs Foster’s remarks came as her predecessor as first minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson told Northern Ireland unionists they could not oppose the protocol at the same time as being part of an administration that implements it.
Mr Robinson said only extreme action by unionists was likely to extract any significant changes to the protocol.
He indicated that unionists effectively face a choice of learning to live with the new arrangements or collapsing Stormont’s powersharing institutions.
Mr Robinson highlighted that the latter course of action would potentially impact Northern Ireland’s fight against Covid-19.
“Is the scrapping of the protocol more important than the continued operation of the Assembly?” he wrote in the Belfast News Letter.
“A choice may have to be made.”
Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and the European Commission’s vice president Maros 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”.
The protocol requires regulatory and customs checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but it has caused disruption to trade since it came into force on January 1, with various grace periods in operation.
Unionists in Northern Ireland are deeply concerned about the arrangements, insisting they have driven an economic wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
They have called on the UK to trigger a mechanism within the protocol – Article 16 – which enables the Government to unilaterally suspend aspects it deems are causing economic, societal or environmental problems.
However, the EU and UK statement on Thursday did not indicate either side was currently willing to contemplate ditching the arrangements.
In the joint statement, the two sides had agreed to find “workable solutions on the ground” and to further engage with business groups in Northern Ireland.
Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic also reiterated their “full commitment” to the Good Friday Agreement, and impacting as “little as possible” on those living in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, according to the joint statement.
Following the meeting, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney described it as a “good day’s work” and said the focus was now on co-operation between the EU and UK to implement the protocol.
“We continue to listen & do what we can to support businesses in NI,” he said on Twitter.
Unionist demands for Article 16 have intensified since the EU briefly triggered the mechanism itself, though swiftly backtracked on the move, amid its efforts to restrict the export of Covid vaccines out of the bloc.
Last week, Mr Gove wrote to Mr Sefcovic asking for an extension of a series of grace periods that are currently in operation that limit the level of bureaucracy associated with the protocol.
The Government wants to extend these grace periods, some of which are due to expire at the end of March, to January 2023 in order to provide space to find permanent solutions.
In reply, Mr Sefcovic said there is an urgent need to “fully and faithfully” implement the protocol as a prerequisite before the UK’s requests for further facilitations are “necessary and justified”.