U-turn by Boris Johnson as he moves from denying Irish Sea border’s reality to attempting to delay some of its checks

After weeks of denial that an Irish Sea border exists, Boris Johnson’s government has U-turned to ask for major parts of the trade frontier to be delayed for years.

Thursday, 4th February 2021, 8:58 am
Boris Johnson told MPs that an Irish Sea border had to be prevented – even though he agreed to it

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove yesterday asked the EU to extend grace periods for supermarkets and other food outlets as well as parcels and medicines until 2023 – effectively putting off key elements of the new border which the EU argued was imperative to protect the integrity of its single market.

Mr Gove also asked the EU to reverse parts of the deal already in place by creating a common travel area across the British Isles for pets and by ending the ban on British soil coming to Northern Ireland, something which has led to GB companies finding their trade in plants with Northern Ireland is now illegal.

The move represents a major change in stance from a government whose Northern Ireland Secretary, Brandon Lewis, has consistently insisted that there is no Irish Sea border and has played down the significance of the mass of new red tape now necessary to move an item from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

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The DUP said it was a ‘sticking plaster’ and urged Mr Johnson (pictured) to go further.

On Tuesday night Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher said “we do need to see an extension of grace periods”.

However, even if the EU agrees to the government’s request, it will not deal with all of the existing problems.

For that reason, the DUP said that what the government has requested is inadequate – although they welcomed the change in stance.

The DUP argued that the proposals do not deal with the long-term problems created by the new border and represent “sticking plaster solutions” which “kick the can down the road”.

Speaking after a phone call with the prime minister and a separate meeting with the Orange Order leadership, DUP leader Arlene Foster said: “Northern Ireland needs action from the prime minister.

“Having talked about it, Boris Johnson now needs to prove that he will use all the powers at his disposal to help the people of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland needs a long-term solution rather than a series of sticking plasters that simply push the problem down the road.”

In a statement after Mrs Foster’s phone call with Mr Johnson, the DUP said that “the prime minister said what the EU was doing ‘goes beyond the bounds of common sense’.”

However, pointedly the DUP said that it had “again made clear that this the reality of what was agreed by the UK and EU”.

Mr Johnson has repeatedly made inaccurate claims about the Irish Sea border, even contradicting his own government’s documents at various points.

Yesterday he told the Commons that he is ready to override elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol by triggering Article 16 of that accord.

However, Mr Johnson has said that before and it is far from clear whether he is preparing to imminently deploy Article 16. It is also unlikely that even if he does do so it will remove all the new checks in place without retaliatory EU action.

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, who spoke to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, Mrs Foster and Michelle O’Neill yesterday, is due to travel to the UK for talks on the matter next week.

Mr Johnson – who agreed to the Irish Sea border and then repeatedly denied the reality of what he had agreed when it was put to him – yesterday told MPs that there could be no barrier in the Irish Sea.

He said: “We will do everything we need to do, whether legislatively or indeed by triggering Article 16 of the protocol, to ensure that there is no barrier down the Irish Sea.”

Tonight Mr Sefcovic told RTE: “I really think if all that flexibilities we put on the table and into the protocol would be used to the maximum that all of the issues that we’re discussing today would be really resolved.

“We should really study how things would look like if the UK would really use and put in practice the flexibilities we agreed upon on December 17.”

Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken said that the prime minister’s words were “meaningless unless followed by resolute actions”.

He said: “The protocol isn’t protecting the Belfast Agreement, instead it damages it. East-West aspects of the agreement have been downgraded by placing North-South on a higher footing. The protocol is fundamentally flawed.”

TUV spokesman Jordan Armstrong said that the request was “pathetically weak”.

He said: “Mr Gove is not stupid. He knows that the protocol is incompatible with the Act of Union. He knows that what he suggests merely kicks the can down the road in relation to some of the issues.

“This does not address the core of the problem – the existence of the protocol which partitions the United Kingdom.

“Longer lead-in periods are merely a stay of execution for some of the links which bind the UK together.”

The government’s request for much longer grace periods would see the full impact of the new border pushed back until after next year’s Stormont elections.

That is potentially significant because if a unionist majority opposed to the NI Protocol emerges from next year’s election that could see the protocol voted down at the first opportunity in late 2024. However, even if the arrangement was voted down by Stormont, the government has given no commitment to entirely removing the border and it is possible that it could be maintained with minor tweaks.

Deputy First Minister Ms O’Neill said that the Irish Sea border was preferable to a land border: “While the protocol is imperfect, it crucially protects the Good Friday Agreement; all-island economy; and avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland.

“It must be faithfully operated with least disruption, and in a legally operable way which complies with the EU/British government agreement.”

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