Ministers from London, Belfast and Brussels held summit talks tonight to head off a new crisis in Northern Ireland.
They met against a background of growing sectarian tension over Brexit trade rules.
Customs officials were pulled out of Ulster ports after hard-line Loyalist made death threats, saying “all border staff are targets.”
Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, and Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster put demands for a relaxation of trade controls to European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic.
The UK wants an extension of “grace periods” for regulation-free imports under the Brexit protocol, due to expire in March, until 2023.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson claims the arrangements that he negotiated for an “Irish Sea border” involve too much red tape and too many delays.
If there is no compromise, he threatens to use “all instruments at the government’s disposal” to allay Unionist objections, raising fears of a unilateral abrogation of the protocol.
Democratic Unionist Party First Minister Foster insists the entire trade deal is unworkable and must be scrapped in favour of a new treaty.
The sudden turn of events has raised fears of fresh sectarian violence. Loyalists have daubed “RIP GFA” – Good Friday Agreement – on the offices of prominent Ulster politicians.
The agreement, negotiated by Tony Blair in 1998, brought peace to the province after 30 years of The Troubles, in which 3,500 died, more than half civilians.
A storm of unexpected ferocity blew up over border checks after the European Commission’s cack-handed intervention in the supply of vaccines via Northern Ireland to Britain.
This “Section 16” meddling was swiftly reversed, but not before it fuelled rising hostility to the trade protocol at the heart of Johnson’s Brexit deal.
Ulster remains within the EU customs union, to prevent a hard border with the Irish Republic. That means checks on traffic by NI and EU officials on goods coming into the province.
And that process has slowed up trade, emptying supermarket food shelves, halting key agricultural imports and disrupting mail. Rules requiring a £100 animal health certiticate to cross the Irish Sea also angered pet owners.
Sensing a political opportunity, leaders of the Democratic Unionist Party demanded abolition of the deal in favour of a new treaty.
They condemned threats to port officials in Larne and Belfast, but extremists in the Loyalist community had already resorted to their old intimidatory ways.
On the walls outside Larne port, they daubed All Border Post Staff Are Targets. In the vicinity, they were seen noting down the registration numbers of workers’ cars. “No Irish Sea barrier” slogans appeared in loyalist areas.
Inspection staff there and in Belfast were immediately withdrawn for their safety. Threats of this nature are not frivolous in Northern Ireland. Loyalist paramilitaries killed more than a thousand people in 25 years of The Troubles.
Police said they had “no evidence” that any of the main paramilitary groups – which still exist in the shadows – were involved in the latest incidents.
Despite the Good Friday Agreement, on both sides of the nationalist/unionist divide there are fears it would only take a spark like this to reignite communal violence.
Roy Beggs, DUP MP, said: “There is a growing discontent in the Unionist community, and I can only see that growing as more and more people recognise they have difficulty buying seeds and plants, and small parcels not being able to get delivered to them.”
But the underlying reason for this crisis goes deeper than a spat with the EU over shipping delays.
DUP politicians see their hegemony in the North slipping away, and a rise in enthusiasm for a united Ireland, especially among the young.
When Theresa May was Prime Minister, their votes at Westminster were vital to the minority-goverenment Tories.
They were handed a £1 billion bung for their backing, but when he won a handsome parliamentary majority, Boris Johnson – once the darling of the DUP – did a Brexit deal that undermined his Ulster allies.
Unionists bitterly resent the “Irish Sea” trade border, saying it makes them second-class citizens in their own country.
Support for the DUP is dwindling, falling to 19% in a poll last weekend as loyalists defect to the even more hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice party.
Observers predict that on current trends, Sinn Fein could become the largest party next year, seizing the First Ministership.
The crisis will also cause disquiet in the White House. President Biden, of Irish descent, has made it plain he is determined to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and the EU Protocol.
-- to www.mirror.co.uk