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EU backs down after Northern Ireland Protocol row provoked fury and dismay on both sides of Irish Sea

Taoiseach Micheál Martin has welcomed the u-turn.

Image: PA Images

Updated Jan 30th 2021, 7:20 AM

THE EU HAS pulled back on plans to prevent Northern Ireland from being used as a back door to funnel coronavirus vaccine from the bloc into the rest of the UK, following an outcry on both sides of the Irish Sea last night.

In a statement, the European Commission said the Northern Ireland Protocol will be “unaffected” by its plans to put limits on vaccines leaving the EU. 

“The commission is not triggering the safeguard clause,” it added, signifying that the controversial Article 16 would not be invoked. 

The protocol, with is part of the Brexit withdrawal deal, normally allows for free movement of goods from the EU into Northern Ireland.

Under the terms of the protocol, goods should be able to move freely between the EU and Northern Ireland as the region remains in the single market for goods and still operates under EU customs rules.

The EU had signalled its intention to trigger Article 16 of the protocol to temporarily place export controls on this movement in respect of vaccines.

The move had caused alarm across the political spectrum, with the Irish government, the British government, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the DUP and other unionists all raising their concerns. 

The Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister spoke about the matter yesterday evening – with Number 10 describing it as a “constructive discussion” – before the EU withdrew its plans.

Micheál Martin and Boris Johnson both raised their concerns with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Responding to the u-turn late last night, Martin said it was “welcome”. “This is a positive development given the many challenges we face in tackling Covid-19,” he tweeted.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said that “lessons should be learned” and warned that the protocol “is not something to be tampered with lightly, it’s an essential, hard won compromise, protecting peace and trade for many”.

Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster had earlier branded the EU’s triggering of Article 16 of Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol to stop unfettered flow of inoculations from the EU into the region an “incredible act of hostility”.

In its statement yesterday evening, the European Commission said it was still ploughing ahead with measures to require that vaccine exports outside the EU are subject to “an authorisation by member states”. 

“Should transits of vaccines and active substances toward third countries be abused to circumvent the effects of the authorisation system, the EU will consider using all the instruments at its disposal,” it said. 

However, invoking elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol will no longer be such an “instrument” after the move earlier provoked a major reaction on the island of Ireland and in Britain. 

High-level talks

It is understood that no prior consultation took place with the Irish government prior to the EU’s earlier decision.

An Irish government source said that the criticism of the decision was “unsurprising”.

The tumultuous evening came amid a deepening row over the allocation of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine after the company announced delays to its EU operations.

The EU’s move to activate Article 16 was aimed at frustrating any effort to use Northern Ireland as a back door to bring vaccines into Great Britain.

In a statement after 9pm yesterday, a Number 10 spokesperson said Johnson had discussed the matter with the Taoiseach.

The spokesperson said: “The Prime Minister this evening had a constructive discussion with the Taoiseach Micheal Martin.

“The PM set out his concerns about the EU’s use of Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol and what these actions may mean for the two communities in Northern Ireland.

“The PM stressed the UK’s enduring commitment to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and said the EU must urgently clarify its intentions and what steps it plans to take to ensure its own commitments with regards to Northern Ireland are fully honoured.

“The PM stressed the UK’s commitment to working together with other countries in response to the coronavirus pandemic.”

In a conversation with von der Leyen, Johnson also expressed his “grave concerns”, according to Number 10.

Earlier criticism

The move had provoked fury from unionists.

Arlene Foster said: “By triggering Article 16 in this manner, the European Union has once again shown it is prepared to use Northern Ireland when it suits their interests but in the most despicable manner – over the provision of a vaccine which is designed to save lives.

“At the first opportunity, the EU has placed a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over the supply chain of the coronavirus vaccine.”

The regulation means Northern Ireland will be considered an export territory for the purposes of vaccine sent from the EU/the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s vaccines arrive from the rest of the UK at present so those will be unaffected.

The DUP leader added: “With the European Union using Article 16 in such an aggressive and most shameful way, it is now time for our Government to step up.

“I will be urging the Prime Minister to act and use robust measures including Article 16 to advance the interests of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.”

The DUP has previously pressed the British Government to invoke the Article 16 mechanism because of disruption to the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland.

The European Commission had said: “Exports of goods from Northern Ireland to other parts of the United Kingdom cannot be restricted by Union law unless this is strictly required by international obligations of the Union.

“Therefore, movements of goods covered by this regulation between the Union and Northern Ireland should be treated as exports.

“Whilst quantitative restrictions on exports are prohibited between the Union and Northern Ireland, in accordance with Article 5 (5) of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, this is justified as a safeguard measure pursuant to Article 16 of that Protocol in order to avert serious societal difficulties due to a lack of supply threatening to disturb the orderly implementation of the vaccination campaigns in the member states.”

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Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill said this evening she’d spoken to the Irish government to raise her “very serious concerns” about the invoking of Article 16.

She said: “This is a totally ill judged move by the EU and should not have been triggered. Calm heads need to prevail, this needs sorted urgently.”

The move was also criticised by SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.

He said: “The disproportionate decision to invoke Article 16 of the Ireland Protocol by the European Commission is a grave error in judgment that undermines the work that has taken place over the last five years to defend the interests of people on this island.

“We face a common threat. Our response to this virus, and to the supply of vaccines, should be characterised by our common values. I am a proud European because I believe in cooperation, compromise and solidarity across national borders. This decision sadly places the Commission at odds with those values.”

UUP leader Steve Aiken said Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis should be embarrassed.

He added: “The EU is unilaterally invoking Article 16 to protect its own interests and it’s about time the UK Government did the same instead of being lead actors in a ridiculous charade that there is no border in the Irish Sea and that Article 16 can’t be invoked.”

The chairman of the House of Commons Northern Ireland affairs committee, meanwhile, has said it was was “unconscionable folly” for the EU to escalate its vaccines row by triggering Article 16.

Simon Hoare said: “Vaccines from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, which account for 100% of Northern Ireland’s coronavirus vaccines, will continue so the public have no reason for fear, but it’s unconscionable folly to escalate a contract dispute with a supplier to affect the so recently agreed, and still bedding in, NI Protocol.

“We need calm, stability and level-headedness.”

With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha, Órla Ryan and the Press Association

About the author:

Sean Murray

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