• Thursday, Apr 22, 2021
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UK, EU to intensify efforts to fix N Ireland's post-Brexit woes

  • Published at 07:37 pm February 4th, 2021
Ireland-brexit
File Photo: A lorry passes a post-Brexit anti-border poster, outside Newry, Northern Ireland, near the border with Ireland on 11 September, 2019 AFP

Fears of sectarian tensions were further fuelled over the weekend after the European Commission said it would restrict Covid-19 vaccine exports as the bloc struggles with its supply

Britain and the European Union agreed on Wednesday to work "intensively" to resolve post-Brexit problems plaguing Northern Ireland, after border checks on goods were suspended this week.

The commitment made at talks between senior UK minister Michael Gove, EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic and Northern Irish leaders, will see them reconvene in London next week.

It follows British demands for "rapid action" from the bloc and Prime Minister Boris Johnson renewing criticism of its role in the province as it grapples with special new trading rules.

Gove and Sefcovic said in a joint statement they had "concluded that the UK and the EU would immediately work intensively to find solutions to outstanding issues."

It added they had reiterated their commitment to the 1997 Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, and to the "proper implementation" of its new trade arrangements.

Fears of sectarian tensions were further fuelled over the weekend after the European Commission said it would restrict Covid-19 vaccine exports as the bloc struggles with its supply.

Although the EU quickly backtracked following fierce criticism, the threatened move has intensified opposition to the new regulations imposed since Britain left the EU's single market and customs union this year.

The arrangements, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, avoid the need for a potentially troublesome hard border on the island of Ireland to protect the hard-won peace.

However, the required checks by local and EU officials were suspended at two ports on late Monday, following threats to port workers.

'No barriers'

Earlier on Wednesday, Johnson blamed the aborted EU move for escalating tensions and told UK lawmakers he would do everything necessary to ensure Northern Ireland could trade easily with the rest of the UK.

"It was most regrettable that the EU should seem to cast doubt on the Good Friday Agreement, the principles of the peace process, by seeming to call for a border across the island of Ireland," he said. 

"We will work to ensure that there are no such borders... and that the principle of unfettered access across all parts of our United Kingdom is upheld."

Johnson added that could include invoking Article 16 of the protocol -- the fallback provision the EU briefly triggered on Friday, which allows London or Brussels to unilaterally suspend aspects of the deal in special circumstances.

But following Wednesday's meeting, Sefcovic said "flexibilities" agreed within the two sides' Brexit accords should allow any issues to be resolved.

"We should really study how things would look like if the UK would really use and put in practice the flexibilities we agreed," he told Ireland's RTE.

'Rapid action'

The Northern Ireland Protocol came into effect on January 1, when a Brexit transition period ended and Britain's 2016 vote to split from the EU came into full effect.

It is designed to prevent a hard border emerging between the north and EU member Ireland -- a frequent flashpoint in the decades of violence -- by transplanting customs checks to Northern Irish ports receiving goods from mainland Britain.

Up to 1998, some 3,500 people were killed as unionists who back ties to Britain engaged in conflict with republicans seeking to merge the province with Ireland.

However, unionist leaders -- and more hardcore loyalists sometimes linked to paramilitary groups -- oppose the protocol and it has had an uneasy rollout over the past month.

Certifications now required on some food imports such as meat, milk, fish, and eggs have caused supply issues, even though supermarkets have been given a three-month grace period before rigorous enforcement begins.

Ahead of talks, Gove sent a letter to his EU counterpart setting out the "rapid action" the UK wants to see.

It urged six steps, covering everything from chilled meat rules to pet travel regulations, and included a demand to extend the supermarket grace period until 2023.

"If it is not possible to agree a way forward in the way we propose, then the UK will consider using all instruments at its disposal," Gove stated. 

"In all cases, what is now required is political, not technical, solutions," he added. 

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