Johnson warns he could override Brexit deal on Northern Ireland

Gavin Cordon and Michelle Devane, PA

Boris Johnson has warned he is ready to override elements of the Brexit divorce settlement relating to Northern Ireland to prevent a trade barrier developing in the Irish Sea.

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic is due to travel to the UK for talks on next week amid a deepening row between London and Brussels.

It comes amid growing concern that measures in the Withdrawal Agreement intended to keep open the land border with the Republic are disrupting trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

A fraught situation was further exacerbated last week when the commission briefly used Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to close the border to exports of the coronavirus vaccine from the Republic.

Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions
Boris Johnson has said he could invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol (UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor)

In the Commons at Prime Ministers’ Questions, Mr Johnson suggested that he could respond in kind if there was no resolution to the issue of goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

“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,” he told MPs.

Mr Sefcovic and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove later held a half-hour virtual meeting with Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill to discuss the situation.

Afterwards, the commission vice president said that he believed the issues could be resolved if all aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol were implemented.

EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic
Maros Sefcovic will travel to London for talks next week (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

“I really think if all that flexibilities we put on the table and into the protocol would be used to the maximum that all of the issues that we’re discussing today would be really resolved,” he told RTE News.

“We should really study how things would look like if the UK would really use and put in practice the flexibilities we agreed upon on December 17.”

Sinn Fein’s Ms O’Neill said Mr Sefcovic had apologised for the way the commission had temporarily invoked Article 16 on Friday.

“He put his hands up and said they had made a mistake and that they moved to rectify that mistake very quickly,” she said.

Ahead of the meeting, Mr Gove wrote to Mr Sefcovic asking for the extension of a series of temporary “grace periods” in the protocol to be extended to 2023 to ensure supermarkets in Northern Ireland can be kept supplied.

“In all cases, what is now required is political, not technical, solutions,” said Mr Gove.

“The need to restore confidence and protect the Belfast ‘Good Friday’ Agreement is urgent.”

In the Commons, the DUP MP Ian Paisley told Mr Johnson that the protocol had “betrayed” his constituents, making them “feel like foreigners in our country”.

Mr Johnson replied: “I utterly share (his) frustration about the way the EU, in particular, the EU Commission, temporarily seemed to call to use the protocol in such a way as to impose a border contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, and contrary to the letter of the Good Friday Agreement.”

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