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EU and UK resume talks on Northern Ireland Protocol as Frost promises 'no diminuation' of rights

Frost has insisted that the UK Government is committed to the equality and human rights safeguards within the Protocol.

Belfast Harbour
Belfast Harbour
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

THE EU AND UK are resuming talks in a bid to settle the dispute between the two parties over the Northern Ireland Protocol in the aftermath of Brexit.

The UK’s Brexit negotiator David Frost and the European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic are set to focus on the Northern Ireland Protocol in fresh taks, although the subject of fishing licences may also come up as French fishermen plan to protest.

Frost has insisted that the UK Government is committed to the equality and human rights safeguards within the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The Brexit minister sought to make clear his attempts to secure changes to the protocol are only focused on the trade-related elements.

Article 2 of the protocol commits the UK to ensuring that Brexit will see “no diminution” of the extensive rights provisions that were enshrined in Northern Ireland as a result of the Good Friday peace agreement.

EU law underpinned many of the equality and anti-discrimination laws that flowed from the 1998 accord.

Amnesty International wrote to Frost expressing concern that Article 2 could be jeopardised if the UK Government follows through with its threat to suspend elements of the protocol amid its dispute with the EU over post-Brexit Irish Sea trade disruption.

In the letter, which was also sent to European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, Amnesty raised concerns that additional commitments on rights contained in the Brexit trade agreement could also unravel if that deal collapses as a consequence of the protocol row.

Frost has now replied to the human rights in a letter, seen by the PA news agency, where he said the government is “firmly committed” to Article 2 of the protocol.

“The Government has always strongly supported Article 2 of the protocol, which became operational when the protocol was signed,” Frost wrote.

“Since that point, the Government has worked closely with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland to set up the dedicated mechanism, funding and supporting both commissions and creating a system in which rights are safeguarded,” he said.

“We have absolutely guaranteed that there will be no diminution of these rights as a result of the UK leaving the EU.”

He said the UK proposals for securing significant changes to the protocol would leave Article 2 “unchanged”.

“The focus of those proposals is on the arrangements covering trade in goods and on the governance arrangements put in place by the protocol,” he added.

In regard to the “non-regression” commitments in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) on rights such as labour and environmental, Frost said: “The TCA provides an excellent framework for managing all these issues and is working well.”

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty’s programme director in Northern Ireland, said while he welcomed Frost’s commentsm he retained concerns.

“We welcome these assurances from Lord Frost. However, we remain concerned that any unravelling of agreements between the UK and EU threatens all the guarantees within the protocol, including essential human rights protections for people in Northern Ireland,” Corrigan said.

“Like a game of Jenga there’s a real worry that taking out one vital piece could bring the whole thing tumbling down.”

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He said other moves by the Government – such as commissioning a review of the UK Human Rights Act and a proposal to prohibit future prosecutions for Troubles-related crimes – heightened Amnesty’s concerns about the potential consequences of the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute escalating.

Elsewhere, French fishermen are preparing to blockade the Channel Tunnel and major ports today in a protest over post-Brexit fishing rights.

The fishermen’s national committee said it would stage protests at the tunnel and the Channel ports of Calais, Saint-Malo and Ouistreham.

In a statement it said the action, which will take place over a few hours, was intended to be “symbolic and non-violent” but any protests could have a major impact on cross-Channel trade and Downing Street urged the French authorities to prevent disruption.

The Commission has stepped up pressure on the UK in the fishing dispute, setting a 10 December deadline to resolve the row.

The No 10 spokesperson said the Government continued to engage with the commission on the subject.

He said Britain had issued almost 1,700 licences to EU boats where they could provide evidence of past fishing activity in UK waters in line with the terms of the TCA.

“We continue to abide by the TCA and work with fishermen if they have any further evidence they wish to submit as part of their application,” the spokesman said.

“We will continue to give licences where that evidence can be met.”

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