UK and EU 'very far' from solving Brexit disruption in Northern Ireland

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·Finance and policy reporter
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Signage for vehicles heading to Ireland from Holyhead port in north Wales. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty
Signage for vehicles heading to Ireland from Holyhead port in north Wales. Photo: Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty

The UK and EU are “very far” from resolving Brexit disruption to goods supplies in Northern Ireland, according to a British minister.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove had called on European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič to urgently reach an agreement last week on revising parts of the Brexit deal over Northern Ireland.

He told MPs on Monday there had been progress in recent talks, but not “as fast as I would like,” with further talks with Šefčovič scheduled for this Thursday.

The UK government faces mounting pressure over the economic fallout of the Brexit deal it agreed for Northern Ireland. Gove admitted there were “disruptions and difficulties” affecting everyday life.

Hauliers and suppliers moving goods from Great Britain have faced extra costs, confusion and delays, with some UK retailers abandoning Northern Ireland altogether. Border staff have also faced threats, forcing them to temporarily suspend checks on animal-based produce.

Further problems are expected when several current grace periods end. Gove’s letter had called for a trusted trader scheme, exempting supermarkets and suppliers from new rules and checks, to be extended beyond April and expanded to cover more retailers. It also demanded an easing of restrictions on the movement of chilled meat, parcels, medicines, steel, seed potato and other plant products.

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“Whether it’s the provision of plants and seeds to household gardeners or whether its the effective supply of goods on supermarket and shop shelves in Northern Ireland, we need to make sure we resolve those problems,” Gove told a hearing of parliament’s European Scrutiny committee.

He acknowledged the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the UK-EU deal designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, was “not working at the moment.” The protocol keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods, and means new rules and restrictions on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

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Gove called for pragmatism from Brussels in revising the restrictions, despite both sides agreeing them late last year. “It does not threaten, I believe, the integrity of the EU single market to have bulbs ordered from a wholesaler in Scotland or England which will then be planted in a garden in Belfast or Ballymena.”

In remarks unlikely to be well-received in Brussels, he added: “If people put a particular type of integrationist theology ahead of the people of Northern Ireland, they are not serving the cause of peace and progress in Northern Ireland.”

Asked by Conservative MP Richard Drax why the EU would shift its position, Gove said “flexibility exists” within the protocol itself to resolve problems.

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But he said citizens in Northern Ireland would make the “ultimate decision” on whether or not the protocol survives. The Northern Ireland assembly will vote on maintaining the agreement in four years’ time.

He also said the UK government “has to reserve its rights,” alluding to Britain’s ability to trigger Article 16 of the protocol allowing unilateral action to tackle serious difficulties.

The European Commission was forced to rapidly U-turn on plans to use the provision itself late last month, as part of a row over EU vaccine supplies.

Gove hit out at the EU’s decision again on Monday, telling MPs it eroded trust. “Article 16 exists in order to protect the people of Northern Ireland. It is not there to ensure the EU’s own vaccine procurement programme can be salvaged... that is completely inappropriate.”

The hearing also saw Gove call reports of a 68% hit to UK-EU tradeflows "erroneous," saying traffic was close to normal levels.

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