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Monday, March 1, 2021

Northern Ireland row is Brexit Groundhog Day as EU, UK keep talking

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LONDON — Brexit talks are never over.

Britain’s Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič held a meeting on Wednesday night to discuss issues with the deal governing Northern Ireland — and decided to keep talking about it. 

“After a constructive discussion amongst all parties, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Vice-President Šefčovič concluded that the U.K. and the EU would immediately work intensively to find solutions to outstanding issues, to be addressed through the Joint Committee,” a joint statement said. Šefčovič will travel to London next week for further talks.

Ahead of the meeting, Gove urged his EU counterpart to extend waivers on post-Brexit checks on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland for almost two years, while the two sides renegotiate troublesome elements for the long term. The meeting was called amid threats to staff working at the Irish Sea border, and as new red tape continues to prompt anger among traders.

The U.K. used a row over EU vaccine exports last week as its opening gambit. Brussels was universally condemned for attempting to block the export of jabs to Northern Ireland, using an emergency pull cord in the Northern Ireland protocol under the Brexit withdrawal pact, Article 16, allowing it to override the agreement.

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The European Commission quickly backtracked, amid condemnation that imposing barriers on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland would be anathema to the Good Friday peace agreement.

But despite the retraction, Britain seized on the mistake and is running with it in a bid to settle issues it has with the protocol. In his letter to Šefčovič, Gove said the move from the EU had “profoundly undermined the operation of the protocol and cross-community confidence in it.”

He issued a list of demands and suggested the U.K. would trigger Article 16 itself if the EU does not agree to the British position this week. “If it is not possible to agree a way forward in the way we propose, then the U.K. will consider using all instruments at its disposal,” he said.

In the House of Commons on Wednesday afternoon, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.K. was prepared to trigger Article 16 if it meant protecting smooth trade between Great Britain to Northern Ireland. “We will do everything we need to do, whether legislatively or indeed by invoking Article 16 of the protocol, to ensure that there is no barrier down the Irish Sea,” he said.

But with talks set to take place next week, Gove’s demands for a quick resolution were rebuffed, and there is little doubt the situation remains tense. A U.K. official said the discussion at the meeting was “forthright.” Gove and the Northern Irish representatives are said to have made clear to Šefčovič the vaccine export move was a mistake.

Mea culpa? 

The demands to renegotiate elements of the protocol amount to an admission from Britain that the arrangements it negotiated last year, which involve keeping Northern Ireland in both the U.K. and EU orbits by carving a regulatory border down the Irish Sea, were less-than perfect. 

For weeks the British government sought to downplay the issue traders were facing in shipping goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, amid new customs and health paperwork. The situation culminated in the threats to customs staff, where the memory of Northern Ireland’s violent Troubles continues to loom over politics.

Gove admitted to the Commons on Tuesday: “In the short term, there are a number of issues [with the protocol] which I would not describe as teething problems.”

Those issues were detailed in the letter to Šefčovič. Gove said grace periods that allow lighter enforcement on EU rules over supermarket goods, pharmaceuticals, chilled meats and parcels heading from Great Britain into Northern Ireland should now be extended to January 2023. Some of the waivers are due to come to an end at the close of March, raising fears about further border disruption.

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He also called for a new deal between the U.K. and Ireland on pet travel, “flexibilities” on the movement of seed potatoes and other plant products, and the mutual recognition of qualifications.

There are signs the EU might not be in the mood to renegotiate. After the meeting, Šefčovič suggested existing arrangements should be maintained. “I really think that, if all the flexibilities we put on the table and into the protocol would be used to the maximum, that all of the issues which we are discussing today would be really resolved,” he told RTE. 

Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Féin vice president and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, told the BBC after the meeting that Šefčovič viewed the issues as “teething problems” — in direct contrast to the comments from Gove and the view of her opponents in the Democratic Unionist Party, who backed Brexit but want the protocol scrapped. “I don’t think there’s any appetite to change the protocol,” she said. 

Gove’s request for a rethink won praise from some observers. Peter Cardwell, a former government adviser on Northern Ireland, said it had raised “some very salient issues and the EU needs to take his valid points very seriously.”

He added: “The EU’s shameful triggering of Article 16 feels like a further betrayal here in Northern Ireland, especially to many unionists who feel Brexit is not, at least at the moment, working for them.”

Tensions at Stormont

The stakes over border checks and infrastructure were laid bare this week when staff at two ports had to be withdrawn due to threats to their safety. Checks were suspended at Larne and Belfast after graffiti appeared expressing opposition to the Northern Irish protocol and branding staff as “targets.”

The row has led to increased tensions in Northern Irish politics. The DUP seized on the vaccines debacle to launch a wider attack on a protocol it has long despised.

“Our leader put it very bluntly to Mr. Šefčovič that the current situation is intolerable and there is a very short time for the EU to put it right,” said a DUP official, referring to First Minister Arlene Foster’s contribution at the meeting. 

The DUP already threatened to block protocol-related legislation at Stormont and reduce cooperation with the Republic of Ireland. But Sinn Féin sees the protocol as a potential aid to a future united Ireland, and has accused the DUP of recklessness and “whipping up hysteria.”

Politicians in both camps are privately wondering whether the situation could trigger another collapse of Northern Ireland’s tenuous power-sharing arrangements, a cornerstone of the Good Friday peace deal. Previous coalitions had to be shut down in 2004 and 2017 because of bad blood between unionists and Sinn Féin grew too toxic.

This article has been updated.

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