As the consequences of Brexit take affect in Northern Ireland, a diplomatic rift has emerged between the Irish and British governments. With verbal barbs being exchanged across the Irish Sea, the European Commission is heading for the courts in its next move to ensure that London sticks to the agreed script and all that before politicians in Belfast have their say as Ken Murray reports from Dublin.
Three months in to Brexit, old diplomatic wounds between London and Dublin are starting to re-open as the British Government appears to be drifting away from key elements of the “Withdrawal Agreement” it painstakingly agreed to with the European Commission at the end of last December.
A decision by the UK government to extend what’s known as ‘the grace period’ or adjustment phase from 31 March to next October without consulting with the European Commission and the Dublin government, has led to Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney (pictured) saying: “The EU is negotiating with a partner it simply cannot trust.”
Speaking on RTE Radio, Coveney added: “If the UK cannot simply be trusted because they take unilateral action in an unexpected way without negotiation, well then the British government leaves the EU with no option and that is not where we want to be.”
The war of words comes as ports in Northern Ireland struggle to deal with the new reality of the UK being outside the EU.
As part of the UK/EU trade deal, Northern Ireland, which is in the United Kingdom, will “remain in the EU” purely for trade purposes only but will do so via an imaginary border or invisible line down the middle of the Irish Sea.
This so-called ‘border’ will ensure that goods will arrive on to the island of Ireland without the necessity to re-establish a contentious physical border with the Republic in the south composing of customs check-points and security personnel.
The so-called ‘grace period’ was included in the EU/UK Withdrawal deal and simply allows flexibility on customs checks of certain goods entering Northern Ireland from GB until import procedures are fully up and running smoothly.
However with traders in Northern Ireland complaining that imported goods from GB are taking too long to unload or have to be returned to Britain and elsewhere due to bureaucratic confusion and issues with paper work, Boris Johnson’s Government took the unprecedented step last week of pro-longing the ‘grace period’ without securing agreement with Dublin and Brussels.
Laying the blame for daily delays in the movement of goods in to N.I. firmly with bureaucrats in Brussels, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis MP writing an opinion piece in The Belfast News Letter hit back effectively telling the EU Commission to wake up and get its act together.
“tThe EU’s leisurely approach to addressing the outstanding issues has meant we needed to take temporary, pragmatic steps to reflect the practical reality that retailers and operations need more time to adapt while discussions in the Joint Committee can continue,” he said.
The decision by the UK government to extend the ‘grace period’ without consulting with Brussels and Dublin has caused anger in both cities with an infuriated EU Commission making it clear that the British will not get away with this decision without consequences.
Speaking to the Financial Times, European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič said: “The EU will take infringement proceedings against the U.K. for its decision to unilaterally extend grace periods on post-Brexit customs checks at Northern Ireland’s ports very soon.”
The great irony in the current controversy is that the Irish Government was lobbying fellow EU member states on behalf of the British for concessions in the Agreement to ensure the smooth importation of certain goods on to the island of Ireland to eliminate cumbersome paper work.
As Senator Lisa Chambers of the governing Fianna Fáil party in Dublin told The View on BBC Northern Ireland: “The grace period is not really the issue here, it’s the fact that they [the British] went ahead and did this without consultation.”
In the meantime, the EU Commission is considering what sanctions it will impose on the UK government, assuming it wins its legal battle with the British.