EU sources have expressed concern over the tone of Michael Gove’s letter to his European Commission counterpart on changes the UK is demanding to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The UK cabinet minister has demanded sweeping and swift changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol as the fallout continues from last week’s move by the Commission to trigger Article 16 of the Protocol over the issue of exports of Covid-19 vaccines.
EU sources have said the letter resembled an ultimatum to the EU, as tension mounts in Northern Ireland over the impact of the protocol, which has meant customs and food safety formalities on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Officials have also said that the UK has still not facilitated access for the EU to its customs IT system, so that EU officials are able to monitor in real time the flow of goods across the Irish Sea.
The UK and EU signed a partnership agreement on 17 December in which London agreed to grant the EU access to HMRC’s data system.
In return, the EU agreed to facilitate a trusted trader scheme that simplified customs formalities. However, EU sources say access has not yet been facilitated.
Officials also say that the UK has yet to make use of other flexibilities, such as data generated when goods are shipped by ferry from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.
Such data was envisaged as providing equivalent information as so-called exit summary declarations, which are normally required when goods leave the EU’s customs union.
Earlier, Mr Gove and his opposite number Maros Sefcovic held a 40-minute video conference, along with the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland.
Afterwards, both sides agreed to a face-to-face meeting in London next week, under the auspices of the EU UK Joint Committee, set up to implement the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
It is understood EU customs and veterinary officials, operating alongside their Northern Ireland counterparts at Northern Ports, have still not been given clearance to return to their duties.
This follows graffiti and alleged intimidation related antagonisms towards the Irish Sea border, brought about by the Protocol.
RTÉ News understands there are 14 EU officials deployed in Northern Ireland, seven who are resident in Northern Ireland and seven who are rotated in and out.
In his letter, Mr Gove said the EU needed to agree to far reaching changes to the protocol in order to “stabilise” the situation in Northern Ireland.
The changes included extended the three and six-month grace periods, during which food consignments will be exempt from EU food safety controls, until at least 1 January, 2023.
Šefčovič says trade issues over NI can be resolved
Earlier, the Commission Vice President said the EU believed outstanding trade issues between the UK and the EU concerning Northern Ireland can be resolved using the flexibilities included in last year’s Brexit deal, including the protocol.
Mr Sefcovic, who will travel to London next week to discuss the problems, said: “I really think that if all that flexibility that we put on the table, and into that protocol, would be used to the maximum – that all of the issues which we are discussing today would be really resolved.
“So I think that we should really study how the things would look like if the UK would really use and put into practice the flexibility which we agreed upon on the 17th of December.”
He added that “the United Kingdom should deliver on what they committed to do, that we would have proper implementation of the protocol. For us this is absolutely key for avoiding a hard border, for maintaining the peace, for really delivering on what we promised to the people in the Northern Ireland and Ireland.
“And therefore I think we should really focus on proper implementation, with the use of all that flexibility I mentioned, then again to start the harder renegotiation of what was agreed just six weeks ago.”
After today’s meeting, DUP leader and First Minister Arlene Foster said permanent solutions rather than temporary fixes were required.
In an article in tomorrow’s Daily Telegraph, Mrs Foster said that the protocol “cannot work” and must be replaced.
She said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had committed to protecting the UK internal market by all legislative means necessary, including triggering Article 16 and that he “must now back up those words with tangible actions”.
The DUP leader is quoted as saying: “The Northern Ireland Protocol has not worked, cannot work and in light of our proposals to the Government, needs to be replaced.”
She warned that simply extending grace periods for businesses could not solve the “wholly disproportionate” checks implemented since the withdrawal of the UK from the EU, and that the region’s “political and economic links” to the UK were at risk.
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill, the deputy first minister, has called for calm heads and leadership from all quarters.
The meeting came after Mr Johnson declared that the UK would invoke Article 16, which would suspend aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol, to ensure there was no trade barrier down the Irish Sea.
Today’s meeting was a result of the fallout from last Friday, when the European Commission sought to trigger Article 16 of the protocol due to new export restrictions on Covid-19 vaccines.
While the commission quickly reversed course, the row has escalated into broader tensions over the problems that the protocol, which came into force on 1 January, was causing in Northern Ireland.
Earlier, Mr Johnson told the House of Commons that his government was prepared “if necessary” to invoke Article 16 to force a rethink of trade within the UK.
He was answering questions from the DUP’s Ian Paisley, who asked what he was going to do when he realises the EU will do nothing to help Northern Ireland.
Mr Johnson said he “utterly shares the frustration” of how the EU Commission seemed to use the protocol in such a way as to “impose a border contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement”.
He said: “We will do everything we need to do to, whether legislatively or indeed by invoking Article 16 of the protocol, to ensure that there is no barrier down the Irish Sea” and businesses can continue to trade “unfettered between Northern Ireland and the rest of this country”.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said the Northern Ireland Protocol is a necessity and the European Commission made a mistake last week resulting in a bitter row and political mayhem.
Mr Martin this evening told the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting that he had spoken to the European Council President Charles Michel about the sensitivity of the protocol.
“There is pressure on unionism, but issues can be worked out without throwing away the protocol,” he said. “The protocol should not be a lightening rod and we need a pragmatic approach.
“It is important ensure a smoother operation on the ground.”
He added that the rhetoric had to be toned down, saying: “We need to reduce tension in Northern Ireland itself.”
Earlier today during Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil, Mr Martin said there has been engagement between Ireland and the European Commission to ensure that attempts to trigger the Northern Ireland Protocol do not happen again.
He said that they also sought to explore if “sensible, common-sense modifications can be made in relation to the protocol”, which he said have been called for on all sides.
Mr Martin was responding to Sinn Féin’s Ruairí Ó Murchú, who asked if there had been any discussion with the British government or European Commission to ensure that the Northern Ireland Protocol is protected.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald appealed for a united approach to deal with the DUP’s decision to undermine the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Ms McDonald said that the united approach shown during the Brexit negotiations was very “successful and necessary in securing the protections for Ireland in the face of Brexit”.
She said that a similar strategy was required once more, coupled with calm, cool leadership.
Ms McDonald told the Dáil that the misguided approach by the European Commission to try to trigger Article 16 last Friday has been seized on by a section of political unionism, the same who “championed Brexit”.
They want to undermine, unravel and remove the protocol, she said.
DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said the protocol was damaging the relationship between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Six One News, Mr Donaldson described the trade difficulties as not just short term, but long term.
“That’s why we need not just a short-term fix or tinkering around the edges of this or kicking the can down the road,” he said.
“We need a permanent solution that will ensure that we continue to have unfettered access to the UK market and that the EU is able to protect its market, and we need that accommodation reached as soon as possible.”
Earlier this week, personnel manning post-Brexit trade checks at Larne and Belfast ports with withdrawn over safety concerns.
The DUP has said it will try to unite unionism to campaign against the protocol and press the British government to remove border controls for goods coming into Northern Ireland from Britain.
The party also said the north-south relationship could not continue as normal following last week’s EU intervention on Article 16.
Additional reporting Tommie Gorman, Mícheál Lehane