NI Protocol ‘not sustainable’ in current format: Brandon Lewis

The Northern Ireland Protocol is “not sustainable” in its current format, Brandon Lewis has said.

The Secretary of State said 200 businesses in Great Britain are not trading with Northern Ireland due to the post-Brexit trade arrangements.

He also referred to supermarkets that do not have a store in the Republic of Ireland, which remains in the EU, going through the same checks as if they were moving goods across the border.

“That is not sustainable. It’s not appropriate within the internal market in the UK, it’s certainly not what is going to be able to function for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland,” he told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Monday.

NI Protocol checks are taking place at the Port of Larne. Photo: Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press

“These are all issues we need to resolve.”

Mr Lewis said businesses across Northern Ireland, with the exception of one sector, are “pretty unanimous that the protocol and the EU’s package offered last October doesn’t resolve the issues either”.

He referred to issues bringing trees for the Queen’s Jubilee and kosher food across the Irish Sea, adding: “There are a whole range of examples of products… as a UK citizen, those citizens should be able to access, let alone businesses who need them for their supply lines.”

Talks between the UK and the EU over the protocol have not yielded a deal.

Mr Lewis told MPs that over the last six to nine months he has not seen “the pragmatism or flexibility” from the EU that would allow a deal, adding “otherwise we would have agreed one by now”.

There is strong opposition from unionists to the protocol, regarding additional checks on goods at Northern Ireland’s port as a border in the Irish Sea.

Paul Givan resigned as Stormont first minister earlier this year as part of the DUP’s opposition to the protocol, which also removed Michelle O’Neill as deputy first minister and left the Executive unable to fully function.

DUP MP Ian Paisley challenged Mr Lewis, saying: “The talk is very strong but I think most people wonder when is some action going to actually flow from that.”

Mr Lewis said the UK Government has not yet triggered Article 16, which would suspend some elements of the post-Brexit arrangements, because ministers want to find agreement for better stability and certainty for businesses.

“I appreciate your point about where does patience run out, our view is we will strain every last sinew to do this by agreement with the EU, and that’s the work that is continuing,” he told MPs.

Earlier in the session, Mr Lewis said it is right that protocol checks on goods are continuing.

In February, Stormont Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots ordered the checks to be halted but that order was suspended after a legal challenge.

“Those checks are still ongoing and there’s no shift to that,” Mr Lewis told MPs. “Our view is that they are a legal requirement and it is right that they are continuing.

“Of course even taking those away doesn’t necessarily, in of itself, even solve some of the issues that businesses are having, certainly for Great Britain to Northern Ireland trade in terms of the extra paperwork and restrictions on it.”

Colin Perry, director of economy and protocol at the Northern Ireland Office, said discussions are ongoing about how the checks will take place.

“Some of those checks will fall on the devolved administration, the agriculture department and the chief vet will make decisions about the kind of checks they put in place,” he told MPs.

Asked if he would be prepared to use his power to order the checks are carried out, Mr Lewis responded: “I would look at using every other means that I possibly could on any issue.

“I think I have shown fairly strongly that I will resist using section 26 and try and find other ways of doing things in partnership, wherever we possibly can, with the Executive rather than be tempted into using section 26.

“I believe in devolution so I believe in trying to work with the Executive to get things done in a devolved way by the devolved authority as much as we can.”