In a significant interview with the News Letter, Brandon Lewis set out what amounts to a plan for further unilateral UK action to ignore various EU rules if Brussels does not agree to scale back the Irish Sea border
That is likely to dismay and enrage the EU, yet Mr Lewis will also disappoint unionists who want the NI Protocol scrapped because he makes clear that he wants to keep it in place but in an altered form.
Mr Lewis, who began the year claiming there was no Irish Sea border, adopted a radically different tone. He stressed his understanding of both unionist constitutional opposition to the protocol and dismay from businesses and consumers at the practical problems which have flowed from it.
Boris Johnson spent most of yesterday in Northern Ireland. When asked by the News Letter why anyone should trust him when he misled the public about the Irish Sea border by denying there would be any checks, the Prime Minister did not address the question. However, he said that “we undertook to have some checks to prevent some goods from Northern Ireland going into Ireland” but he didn’t want “loads of checks” from GB to NI.
Mr Johnson also claimed that he had supported the protocol “because it seemed to me to uphold the principles of the UK internal market” but admitted that there is now “an imbalance in the way the protocol is operating so as to affect the balance of the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement”.
When asked if he could commit to the government not banning from Northern Ireland items such as sausages and soil, Mr Lewis said: “Look, that is absolutely what we want to focus on. I want to be really clear about our position: The great British banger – there are obviously some phenomenal Northern Irish sausages as well, but I want to make sure that if you want to be able to go to your local shop and experience the Norfolk banger or a Melton Mowbray pork pie or whatever it is, that you can do that; that’s got to be the aim.
“My position and the government’s position in terms of the grace period we’ve got for chilled meats at the moment is not that at the end of that grace period there is a cliff edge; it’s that we use the grace period to get a permanent solution to ensure that those products can continue to flow.”
Last week the government announced a series of unilateral extensions to grace periods which delay parts of the Irish Sea border from being implemented. However, in that flurry of announcements it was largely missed that there was no end date associated to the reversal of what had been a total ban on British soil being imported, even if a few particles were on a plant’s roots.
One of the few people to notice that was former Ukip member Richard North, who wrote on his blog that the decision was different “in that it deliberately sets aside a provision on Union law listed in Annex 2 of the NI Protocol, which the UK government has agreed should apply to Northern Ireland”. Even though it was described as a “temporary operational measure”, and Downing Street had said it was part of “temporary, practical arrangements”, he highlighted that there was no end date.
Last week’s guidance states: “Bulbs or vegetables that have been grown in soil can be sent from GB to NI even if they still have soil attached.
“Plants can be moved to NI with soil and other growing media attached, provided they are from an authorised business meeting GB plant passporting requirements for soil.”
Other new red tape such as customs declarations remains.
When asked if that decision was simply a grace period – delaying the inevitable – or was a permanent decision which will not be overturned, Mr Lewis said that the government had issued “a further guidance paper; it’s not actually a grace period, so it sets out the arrangements for moving plants, vegetables, bulbs, machinery...if they have soil attached.
“But it’s not a grace period; it’s a guidance piece so that is our guidance; that is not a time-limited issue; no.”
When it was put to him that businesses such as plant nurseries need certainty that this is the law and it won’t be changing, he said: “Yes, and that’s why we’ve been able to issue the guidance on that. It still recognises the robust arrangements, so we don’t compromise biosecurity, etc, with the single epidemiological unit of the island of Ireland, but yes, that is our guidance, that is the position.
“That point about certainty was also really behind the timing of the decisions last week because of what businesses were saying to us and confirmed after we took that decision that we had to do that to give them certainty for the weeks ahead, not just the months ahead.”
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