The UK’s minister for EU relations Lord Frost has said the Northern Ireland Protocol is not “sustainable for long” in its current guise.
Frost’s gloomy prognosis followed a trip to Northern Ireland with NI minister Brandon Lewis. They met with businesses from sectors including aerospace, food, retail, and life sciences, as well as visiting the Border Control Post at Larne Harbour.
In a statement after the visit, Frost said: “Businesses have gone to extraordinary efforts to make the current requirements work, but it is hard to see that the way the Protocol is currently operating can be sustainable for long.
“We’re committed to working through the issues with the EU urgently and in good faith. I hope they will take a common sense, risk-based approach that enables us to agree a pragmatic way forward that substantially eases the burdens on Northern Ireland.”
The EU and UK are engaged in ongoing dialogue to find practical measures to alleviate problems that have emerged since the beginning of the year.
This was the point when NI, while being part of the new UK customs territory, also remained subject to EU single market and customs rules under the Northern Ireland Protocol as part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Since then, NI businesses have faced some disruption in receiving goods from GB as reported in the IOE&IT Daily Bulletin.
The Guardian reports diplomatic sources saying that the UK has “ruled out the most helpful option of aligning food standards with those of the EU”.
Europe editor at Irish state broadcaster RTE Tony Connelly tweeted that while Lord Frost urged the EU to take a “risk-based” approach to consignments of food entering Northern Ireland from GB, the bloc has consistently ruled this out.
‘Marching season’ coming
Ireland’s foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney has suggested there is “pressure” to come up with solutions for the Protocol by June, ahead of NI's so-called ‘marching season’ that culminates on 12 July when parades commemorate the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690.
The FT points out that the Protocol has been rejected by all the mainly protestant Unionist political parties. It was blamed in part for rioting in mainly Loyalist areas over Easter and for the downfall of DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose successor will be elected on Friday.
While Frost said the UK would “consider all our options” to preserve peace, a senior EU diplomat said that it was determined to take an “orthodox approach” that would limit any trade facilitations only to what was possible under the basis of existing EU laws.
Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, who met with Frost, said the UK government and the EU had to be willing to work together.
“We were clear that there is a need for an auditable and certified supply chain to remove friction on SPS [animal and plant products] and other goods,” he said.
Dip in UK-Ireland exports
New data from the Office of National Statistics reveals that UK goods exports to the island of Ireland fell by 13% in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period last year.
The BBC reports that official estimates from the ONS show that imports from Ireland were down by 4% in the same period.
However, there were signs of recovery in March with imports and exports increasing.