Stormont parties press Lord Frost to reach agreement in NI Protocol negotiations

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Lord Frost has been urged by political parties at Stormont to find agreement with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The Brexit minister spent two days in Belfast meeting political leaders and representatives from the business community.

All the parties urged him to reach an agreement with the EU, while DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he expects decisive action, such as the triggering of Article 16 of the protocol if progress is not made “within a reasonable time”.

The parties are sharply split over the protocol, with unionists denouncing the post-Brexit arrangements as a border down the Irish Sea, while nationalists have called for its full implementation.

Lord Frost (Peter Byrne/PA)

The protocol has seen additional checks on goods arriving into Northern Ireland from Great Britain as the region effectively remains within the single market to avoid a hard border on the island.

On Wednesday Lord Frost said triggering Article 16, a safeguard mechanism in the protocol which can effectively suspend elements of the arrangements, remains a “very real option”, but he would prefer to reach agreement with the EU.

Later in the House of Commons Prime Minister Boris Johnson reiterated his comments earlier in the week that the use of Article 16 would be “legitimate” and “perfectly legal”.

Sir Jeffrey told the Cambridge Union on Wednesday that not a single elected unionist representative in Northern Ireland supports or endorses the protocol.

“The damage it is causing is being felt in every corner of, and by every community in, Northern Ireland,” he said.

“In the absence of an agreement which fully restores Northern Ireland’s place within the internal market of the UK, then the Government will be left with no other option but to take decisive unilateral action to protect Northern Ireland and its people.”

However Sinn Fein MLA Declan Kearney urged the UK Government to “step back from the brink”.

Sinn Fein Executive Office Minister Declan Kearney (Niall Carson/PA)

“It is essential at this point in time that the rhetoric around threats of triggering Article 16 are discontinued, and we said that very clearly to David Frost this morning,” he said.

He said businesses in the region need certainty and the smooth implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said triggering Article 16 “would be extremely short-sighted” and cause Northern Ireland “serious economic harm”.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said she stressed to Lord Frost “the importance of taking the negotiations seriously, of trying to find a landing zone that we can all agree on so we can remove the instability that is currently hanging over the institutions and businesses and start to move forward”.

Earlier Lord Frost said he would “very much hope” to bring the talks with the EU to a conclusion.

“That’s what we would most like to do. If we can’t, if there can’t be an agreement, then obviously the famous Article 16 is a very real option for us,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.

Asked about Irish Foreign Affairs minister Simon Coveney’s assessment that there will be a deal before Christmas, Lord Frost said: “I would like to progress this as fast as we possibly can, I’m glad there’s ambition on the EU side … I think it can be done.

“Whether it will be done is a different question, it’s got to be a deal that deals with the problems, solves the underlying problems and makes a difference to businesses and people’s lives.”

Ireland’s Minister for European Affairs Thomas Byrne said he viewed Lord Frost’s comments on Wednesday as “positive” and an indication he was in “solutions mode”.

“He certainly said that he hopes talks can reach a conclusion, he acknowledges a wide range of views among business and among the communities as well and a wish to resolve it, so I have to say I’m taking this quite positively,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.

“I think it would be in everybody’s interest if we can get a solution to this issue.”

Lord Frost declined to talk about the “detailed negotiating position” in the talks with the EU but said the question of how goods move from Great Britain and Northern Ireland was “at the heart of it”.

“We have said that we don’t see any reason why goods that everyone acknowledges are going to stay in Northern Ireland need to go through processes,” he said.

“Obviously if they go on into Ireland we have said that we will police them in accordance with EU law, that’s perfectly reasonable, but goods staying in Northern Ireland – why do they need to go through a customs check?”

Lord Frost said there is a “gap” between the UK and EU positions.

“We are in a situation where the EU have made some proposals, at the moment without going into detail. I’m not sure they would solve these problems of checks and processes for goods moving into Northern Ireland, but we keep talking and we’re seeing if we can move this forward in a way that does produce consensus,” he said.

Challenged on triggering Article 16, Lord Frost responded: “I think Article 16 is a legitimate option within the treaty.

“Article 16 is an article in the protocol, it’s a safeguard mechanism and its use is perfectly legitimate, that’s why it is there in the protocol and that’s why it is an option in this process.

“I think it’s everyone’s preference, it’s certainly our preference, to try to resolve it without using Article 16, but if we can’t resolve it in the negotiations, Article 16 is a perfectly legitimate option to solve these problems. That’s why it has to be on the table.

“It’s obviously a matter for the European Union if they were to choose to retaliate against any use of Article 16, which I repeat is perfectly legitimate.

“I don’t think it helps if they chose to (retaliate). If we use Article 16, it’s about making trade flow more freely within the United Kingdom, and I don’t see why it would help for the response to that from the European Union to be sanctions, retaliation and making trade more difficult.

“I don’t understand why that would help the situation here, and I hope everybody can stand back from that.”

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