Northern Ireland’s First Minister Paul Givan resigned on Thursday in protest at post-Brexit trade rules, a day after an attempt by one of his colleagues to halt some checks on goods arriving from Britain drew anger from the EU and Ireland. read more
NO MORE CHECKS?
As part of its Brexit deal, Britain agreed a document known as the Northern Ireland protocol with the European Union that aims to avoid politically contentious border checks between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland.
But the protocol has effectively created a border in the Irish Sea for goods moving to the province from Britain because it kept Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods.
This has angered pro-British unionists and prompted London to seek to rewrite the deal it signed up to before it left the EU in 2020.
Most of the checks on goods coming from Britain have not yet been implemented as London and Brussels seek to rework the deal that came into force last year.
The order by Northern Irish agriculture minister Edwin Poots – which he says will come into force on the ground in the coming days – applies only to agri-food inspections, while other checks by council and customs officials remain in place.
Trade groups have also told their members to continue to follow the current rules regardless of whether they are checked or not. Northern Ireland Retail Consortium Director Aodhán Connolly compared the situation to a motorist being advised to insure their car, even though the chances of being stopped by police were very small.
London and Brussels have been in talks for months to resolve the impasse over the protocol. The EU has proposed halving customs paperwork and cutting checks on food products by 80%, but Britain wants them to go further.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, Britain’s latest Brexit negotiator, said last month “there is a deal to be done”, while her counterpart, European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, wants to reach agreement by the end of February before campaigning begins for Northern Ireland elections due in May.
EU officials said on Thursday the order to halt some checks was not helpful to that process, while London said it highlighted the “significant problems” with the protocol.
Brussels also said London had a responsibility to respect the international obligations it had entered into. The EU last year began a so-called ‘infringement procedure’ against Britain for making similar unilateral changes to the protocol, though it froze the legal action to aid the current negotiations.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said on Thursday those talks would continue, regardless of the political turmoil in Belfast, though few analysts expect a breakthrough before negotiators take a step back for the Northern Irish elections.
The pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), currently the largest party in the regional assembly, has been threatening for months to frustrate the checks and collapse the power-sharing administration, which is a key part of the 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.
The DUP has been struggling in opinion polls and has lost support to more moderate and hardline unionist groups, partly due to the protocol and its own internal woes, having got rid of two leaders in a matter of weeks last year. Rivals accused them on Thursday of conducting an electoral stunt.
Polls suggest that rivals Sinn Fein will become Northern Ireland’s largest party for the first time in May. A LucidTalk poll conducted last month put the Irish nationalist, pro-EU Sinn Fein well ahead on 25%, with the DUP in second place on 17%.