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The protocol

Boris Johnson to consider invoking Article 16 to stop 'barrier down Irish Sea'

Post-Brexit inspections on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain have been suspended amid concerns over the safety of officials.

LAST UPDATE | Feb 3rd 2021, 1:15 PM

UK PRIME MINISTER Boris Johnson has said that his government is considering invoking Article 16 of the Protocol to unilaterally stop Brexit related checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

“[We will] do everything we need to do, whether legislatively or indeed by invoking Article 16 of the Protocol, to ensure that there is no barrier down the Irish Sea,” he told the House of Commons today.

Johnson was responding to comments from DUP MP Ian Paisley during PMQs, who said unionists were made to feel like foreigners in their own country.

“Tea and sympathy will not cut the mustard. So what is the Prime Minister actually going to do when you realise that the EU will do nothing to help Northern Ireland? … Prime Minister, be the unionist we need you to be.”

Responding, Johnson said:

I utterly share the frustration of the honourable gentleman about the way the EU, in particular, the EU Commission, temporarily seemed to call to use the Protocol in such a way as to impose a border contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, and contrary to the letter of the Good Friday Agreement, and we will do everything we need to do whether legislatively or indeed by invoking Article 16 of the Protocol to ensure that there is no barrier down the Irish Sea.

“The honourable gentleman’s business constituents, some of whom I know very well and admire very much, can continue to do business unfettered between Northern Ireland and the rest of this country.”

His comments could possibly put the UK government at odds with the Irish government’s staunch defence of the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney earlier said calls to get rid of the Northern Ireland Protocol are “completely unrealistic” and “that is not going to happen”.

The protocol is at the centre of an argument between Ireland, Northern Ireland, the UK and the European Union following last week’s EU intervention on Article 16.

On Friday the EU had signalled its intention to trigger Article 16 of the protocol, a safeguard clause, to temporarily place export controls on this movement in respect of vaccines.

The European Commission later rowed back on those plans, but the move has caused tension, particularly with the Northern Ireland Executive. 

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland today, Coveney said Ireland, the UK and the EU “have a legal obligation in an international treaty to implement the protocol, and I think it’s also important to say that the protocol isn’t primarily the problem here.”

“The problem is caused by Brexit, and the kind of Brexit that the British government pursued and insisted on, because there were alternatives that would have been much easier to implement, the EU wanted to share a customs union and single market with the UK, that would have meant no barriers to trade.

“Some people are trying to rewrite history here … the protocol itself is about solving problems that are caused by Brexit, trying to protect an all-island economy, prevent border infrastructure on the island, or tense political relationships on the island.”

However Coveney did concede “there are elements in terms of implementation that are causing real problems”.

“I think what what senior politicians need to do now is look at ways in which pragmatism can be applied to the implementation of the protocol in the context of flexibility and grace periods where appropriate, but it has to be done within the context of the protocol itself, because … we all have a legal obligation now in international law to implement the protocol and ensure that the protections that it provides are in place.”

Coveney said the EU’s actions on Friday have made the situation “a lot worse”.

“And while that decision was reversed, of course, and wouldn’t have happened at all if there had been consultation, it certainly has triggered a political response in Northern Ireland which makes implementation of the protocol even more difficult.

“When you have a significant minority of politicians in Northern Ireland now actively saying that they will not cooperate with the protocol then that poses real difficulties.

“Added to that you have totally unacceptable threats to people working in Larne and Belfast ports – I think the PSNI has provided clarification that this isn’t a wider loyalist paramilitary issue – but it certainly is still intimidating for for workers there. And that’s something that needs to be condemned.”

‘Lecturing everyone’

Also speaking to Morning Ireland, the DUP’s Nigel Dodds said that there is a “recognition across the board to the damage that’s been done as a result of the EU’s moves”.

He said that the European Union had spent time “lecturing everyone” on the importance of Northern Ireland, but had decided to “set that aside at the first opportunity”.

Dodds said that it was welcome to hear the likes of Coveney and ministers in Westminster acknowledging problems with the protocol.

“I welcome the change of tone,” he said.

“There aren’t just teething problems. These are significant difficulties. It’s incumbent on the UK government to protect the internal market of Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK.”

In a statement released today, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the DUP’s “destabilising approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol is deeply regrettable”.

“I think it is highly regrettable that the First Minister has chosen to approach the challenges presented by Brexit in a way that will increase instability and heighten tension at a time of immense sensitivity.

“We should be very clear – the DUP, under Arlene Foster’s leadership, campaigned for Brexit. They said no to Theresa May’s softer Brexit proposal.

“They said no to alignment with the EU Single Market and Customs Union across these islands. They said no to every attempt to prevent the emergence of a new border in Ireland or in the Irish Sea.

“Their every political machination over the last five years has led us to this point. If there is an architect of the challenges that we face today, it is the First Minister and her party,” Eastwood said.

Physical inspections on goods entering the region from Great Britain, which are required under the protocol, have been suspended amid threats and intimidation of staff.

Police have insisted there is no evidence that loyalist paramilitaries are involved in the sinister campaign, instead blaming disgruntled individuals and small groups.

Yesterday, in another sign of heightened tensions in the region, a large group of masked men were seen walking around an area of east Belfast where the Ulster Volunteer Force exerts influence on the community.

Graffiti warning off inspectors has appeared close to ports in recent weeks. Police have stepped up patrols at the ports following the spate of intimidatory incidents.

The protocol is a mechanism agreed by the UK and EU as part of the withdrawal talks to ensure a free-flowing Irish border.

It achieves that by moving regulatory and customs processes to the Irish Sea, focusing on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The inspections and added bureaucracy are required because, under the protocol, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market for goods and also applies EU customs rules at its ports.

Unionists and loyalists are deeply unhappy with the new arrangements, which came into force on 31 December, believing the protocol has created a barrier between the region and the rest of the UK, undermining the constitutional integrity of the Union.

Yesterday, the DUP announced a series of political moves aimed at undermining the protocol.

Its strategy includes opposing any protocol-related legislation at the Stormont Assembly and refusing to participate in any exchanges with the Irish government related to the operation of the protocol.

Contains reporting from Sean Murray and PA

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