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Coveney had 'blunt' conversation with UK government over move to extend NI Protocol grace period

The minister said the EU is seeing now it is negotiating with a partner it can’t trust.

Image: PA

Updated Mar 4th 2021, 12:45 PM

MINISTER FOR FOREIGN Affairs Simon Coveney has expressed his frustration this morning at the UK’s decision to unilaterally extend a grace period that was given to supermarkets in Britain exporting agri-foods to Northern Ireland.

Coveney has said the European Union member states now see that “they are negotiating with a partner they simply can’t trust” and this is why legal options are now being considered. 

“This is really unwelcome,” Coveney told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland. “It’s the British government essentially breaking the protocol, breaking their own commitments – again – and the EU having to then consider how they respond to that.”

Under the trade agreement the UK and EU struck on Christmas Eve, decisions around the Northern Ireland Protocol must be taken jointly between both sides. But the UK yesterday said that it will unilaterally extend the grace period due to expire on 1 April, until 1 October this year – a six-month extension.

Coveney said this morning that the Irish government had been given no indication ahead of time that this action was to be taken.

He said he had a “blunt but detailed” conversation yesterday with the UK’s Brexit minister and former negotiator David Frost and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis.

“I strongly advised them not to do it because I felt this would really damage the relationship with the European Union and with  Vice President (Maroš) Šefčovič in particular,” he said.

“And the relationship between Lord Frost and Vice President Šefčovič is a really important one for Ireland and for our future on this island in terms of the pragmatic implementation of the protocol and what’s been agreed in international law.

And before Lord Frost had even spoken in detail to Maroš Šefčovič in his new role, this was announced in a written statement by the British government in Westminster. To say that is disrespectful would be an understatement.

Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, health export certificates are required for agri-foods being sent from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

But out of concern that this additional paperwork and checks would hamper the North’s food supplies, a grace period was given to major supermarkets in order to keep shelves stocked. 

On 3 February, the UK formally requested that the European Commission extend this grace period, which would waive new checks and required paperwork for agri-foods, along with a number of other sectors, until 1 January 2023. Then yesterday the government announced it was making the decision to extend it for six months. 

Coveney said he does not favour legal action and instead favours “engagement on the basis of trust on both sides”.

“But if the UK simply cannot be trusted, because they take unilateral action in an unexpected way without negotiation well then, the British government leaves the EU with no option. This is not where we want to be, but it’s where the British government is driving us towards.”

At a Northern Ireland Committee, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) Denis McMahon said food and plant safety checks currently only applied to 30% of the agri-food goods.

This indicates the enormous pressure his department could be under once the grace period does eventually expire, resulting in significant more checks being needed.

“There can be no doubt whatsoever that Daera staff are conducting very significant numbers of checks, including documentary, identity and physical checks and this within the context of the pandemic,” Dr McMahon told the Agriculture committee.

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“The demand is huge and is reflected in the fact that we in Northern Ireland process documentation on a scale larger than all other entire countries across the European Union, according to the system.”

He added: “We’re achieving this ahead of a major change when the retail grace period ends, and there will be a huge increase in demand, building on current levels, which will not be sustainable with the staff and resources currently available to Daera.”

- With reporting by Gráinne Ní Aodha

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