The leading party in Northern Ireland on Tuesday (2 February) launched a campaign to scrap the protocol for the province that lies at the heart of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU.
The Democratic Unionist party (DUP), which has always opposed the Northern Ireland protocol that introduced border checks on goods travelling from Britain to the province, has launched an official and coordinated campaign to “restore our place in the UK internal market”.
The DUP, whose leader Arlene Foster is the First Minister of Northern Ireland’s devolved government, also promised to “oppose any protocol related measures” in Stormont that undermine the internal market in the UK.
The unionist party, which is the largest in the devolved government, has complained that the protocol separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK in trade terms.
Foster will have a conference call with UK Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič on Wednesday.
Earlier, Gove called for grace periods in the protocol to be extended, to allow businesses more time to adapt to new Irish Sea border processes. The first grace period for checks on chilled meats and supermarket supplies ends in March after which the EU’s normal customs process will resume.
“We do need to make sure grace periods are extended so that supermarkets can continue to provide consumers with goods they need,” Gove told the House of Commons on Tuesday.
Gove also told UK lawmakers that the Commission’s decision last week to invoke Article 16 of the protocol in an emergency bid to control exports of the COVID–19 vaccine to the UK had “eroded trust” in the EU. The Commission quickly abandoned the move following an angry reaction from the UK and Irish governments.
“Article 16 exists for a good reason – it is only meant to be invoked after all other options are exhausted and in the interests of people of Northern Ireland – none of these conditions were met,” said Gove.
Article 16 can be invoked unilaterally by the UK or the EU if either side believes that the protocol is causing “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.
Louise Haigh, Northern Ireland spokesperson for the Labour party, described the Commission’s move as a “serious mistake”.
For its part, the DUP has leapt on the Commission’s move, arguing that it demonstrates that the EU’s insistence on the Northern Ireland protocol was borne out of political opportunism during the Brexit negotiations rather than a commitment to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]