Michael Gove has expressed frustration at the lack of progress in talks with Brussels aimed at resolving difficulties in Northern Ireland’s Brexit arrangements.
The Cabinet Office Minister will meet the European Commission’s vice president Maros Sefcovic in London on Thursday to discuss the problems faced in Northern Ireland as a result of the new trading arrangements.
Mr Gove acknowledged the protocol was “not working at the moment” with the result being “disruptions and difficulties faced by Northern Ireland citizens in their daily lives”.
While progress was being made in talks with the European Commission, Mr Gove said it “has not been as fast as I would like” and “we are very far from resolving all those problems”.
Mr Gove said he believed the issues could be resolved within the Northern Ireland Protocol, without needing to trigger the Article 16 procedure to effectively override it.
“They can be resolved within the context of the protocol, we don’t need to ditch it in order to resolve those issues, but as the Prime Minister has spelt out, if we can’t make progress in resolving those issues then the UK Government has to reserve its rights.”
Relations between Belfast, London and Brussels have been severely strained after the European Commission threatened to use Article 16 in a row over coronavirus vaccine supplies, before performing a humiliating U-turn following a political backlash.
Mr Gove told the Commons European Scrutiny Committee that the EU’s move to use the measure was “a moment when trust was eroded, when damage was done, and where movement is required in order to ensure that we have an appropriate reset”.
The EU’s own procedures were set aside and member states – particularly Ireland – were “ridden roughshod over”.
“It is still of concern that as things stand, the EU reserve the right potentially to return to Article 16 in this area,” he said.
“As things stand that regulation is still in place in its current form and I think there needs to be a realisation on all sides that this isn’t just some arcane bit of diplomatic procedure: this has real consequences on the ground.”
The Northern Ireland Protocol was designed to prevent a hard border with Ireland but has resulted in additional checks for goods crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
The Apprentice Boys loyal order has branded it an “affront to democracy”, warning that jobs will be lost and the cost of living will increase due to disruption caused by the arrangements.
It pledged to support any legal and peaceful action necessary to overturn the protocol’s provisions.
The Protestant organisation added: “The Northern Ireland Protocol, and the clear barriers it places between our islands, our families, friends and fellow citizens, in travel and trade, is the very opposite of an ‘unfettered’ United Kingdom promised by successive prime ministers since 2016.”
Calls from the DUP and other unionist parties to jettison the protocol have intensified in recent weeks amid evidence of some disruption to trade arriving at Irish Sea ports from Great Britain.
Unionists and loyalists believe Northern Ireland’s position within the UK has been undermined by the protocol, which was incorporated into the Withdrawal Agreement to ensure a free-flowing Irish land border post-Brexit.
It means Northern Ireland follows the EU’s rules on goods while the rest of the UK is not similarly obliged.
It requires extra pre-delivery red tape and inspections at Northern Ireland’s ports which initially reduced consumer choice of some food supplies and threatened parcel deliveries.
But senior Cabinet Office official Jessica Glover told MPs that trade flows from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are “back to normal”.
Ms Glover, director general of the Transition Task Force in the Cabinet Office, told the Commons European Scrutiny Committee: “GB to NI trade flows are back to normal and indeed slightly higher now than they were in the equivalent week last year.
“So we are not seeing disruptions in trade flows on that route which is again a testimony to the really good work that many businesses I know have done to get themselves ready for those arrangements.”