Boris Johnson has vowed to “do everything we need to do” – including an attempt to override post-Brexit arrangements with the EU – in order to “ensure there is no barrier down the Irish Sea”.
Having held talks with Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster on Wednesday morning, the prime minister later raised the prospect of triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
It comes just days after the EU itself threatened – and then abandoned – an attempt to invoke Article 16 as part of the bloc’s row with drugmakers over COVID vaccines and its efforts to introduce export controls on jabs.
Meanwhile, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove has sent his EU counterpart a series of demands, including an extension of the current three-month light-touch regulation grace period for supermarkets, an agreement on pets, and a rethink of a ban on exports of seed potatoes from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Article 16 is intended to be used when the Protocol – designed to avoid a post-Brexit hard border on the island of Ireland and a key part of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement – is unexpectedly leading to serious “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.
It allows the UK or the EU to act unilaterally to avoid these difficulties.
On Wednesday Mr Gove met European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic, Mrs Foster and Northern Ireland’s deputy minister Michelle O’Neill.
Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic said in a statement after the meeting that they were fully committed to the Good Friday Agreement and the “proper implementation of the Protocol – protecting the gains of the peace process, maintaining stability, and avoiding disruption to the everyday lives of the people of Northern Ireland and a hard border on the island of Ireland.”
The two countries will “immediately work intensively to find solutions to outstanding issues”, the pair said, adding that they would meet again next week in London.
Ian Paisley, DUP MP, said the Protocol had been “an abject failure” and had overseen a “descent every day further and further into chaos”.
He told Sky News: “We really need to fix it.
“I think I’d start by saying to the EU: Northern Ireland is not designed to be the protection zone for the European single market. We’re not there to protect the European single market – we’re part of the United Kingdom.
“If Europe wants to protect the single market, they should do so in the Republic of Ireland, don’t use Northern Ireland for that purpose and let us get on with having an arrangement that actually works.
“It doesn’t suit nationalists, unionists or anyone in Northern Ireland – all it does is hamper business. Let’s fix it and fix it immediately. The sooner we get on with that, the better.”
But Mrs O’Neill said: “Every effort must be made to make (the Protocol) work…I expect all sides to live up to that commitment that was made in the (Brexit) agreement.”
She said: “What needs to happen here is calm and steady heads.
“We are only six weeks into the Protocol. It needs to be made to work but also (while being) mindful of the fact that there are new trading realities.”
Mr Johnson told MPs during Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions: “I utterly share the frustrations… 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, contrary to the letter of the Good Friday Agreement.
“We will do everything we need to do, whether legislatively or indeed by invoking Article 16 of the Protocol to ensure there is no barrier down the Irish Sea.”
The prime minister also described how it was “most regrettable that the EU should seem to cast doubt on the Good Friday Agreement, the principles of the peace process, by seeming to call for a border across the island of Ireland”.
“We will work to ensure that there are no such borders, we will respect the peace process, and indeed no barriers down the Irish Sea, and that the principle of unfettered access across all parts of our United Kingdom is upheld,” he added.
Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic are co-chairs of the EU-UK Joint Committee, which is responsible for overseeing and implementing the Withdrawal Agreement – including the Protocol.
In an effort to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland, the Protocol allows Northern Ireland to remain under some EU rules.
But this means there has to be customs declarations on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, including checks on some products.
Businesses have blamed the new post-Brexit requirements for recent shortages of some products in Northern Ireland’s supermarkets.
Meanwhile, post-Brexit border inspections were this week suspended at two of Northern Ireland’s busiest ports due to safety fears for staff.
Ahead of their talks on Wednesday afternoon, Mr Gove wrote to his EU counterpart with a series of demands.
• an extension of the current three-month light-touch regulation grace period for supermarkets, following the end of the Brexit transition, until 2023
• an extension of temporary exemptions for pharmaceuticals, chilled meats and parcels crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, until 2023
• a bilateral arrangement that “comprehensively addresses” the current barriers to taking pets between Great Britain, Northern Ireland and Ireland
• a rethink of the EU ban on exports of seed potatoes from Great Britain to Northern Ireland
Mr Gove also said the UK and Northern Ireland governments had “compiled a wider list” of issues with the implementation of the Protocol.
He told Mr Sefcovic that the EU’s aborted triggering of Article 16 had “profoundly undermined the operation of the Protocol and cross-community confidence in it”.
Mr Gove also sought the EU’s assurances that it “will not seek to introduce any further measures that would restrict or prohibit the movement of any vaccines or medicines in to Northern Ireland”.
He added that the UK was seeking “urgent resolution” of problems with the Protocol.
Following Mrs Foster’s talks with Mr Johnson, the DUP said the prime minister had told her “his timetable for getting all these matters sorted is the end of March”.
The party, who are fiercely opposed to the Protocol, on Tuesday urged people to sign an online UK parliamentary petition calling for Mr Johnson to trigger Article 16 as a means to “immediately remove any barriers to unfettered trade” between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Ahead of Wednesday’s talks, Mr Sefcovic described the Protocol as “a cornerstone” of the Withdrawal Agreement and “the only way to protect Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all dimensions, protecting peace & stability on the island of Ireland”.