This was first published in The Telegraph’s Refresher newsletter. For more facts and explanation behind the week’s biggest political stories, sign up to the Refresher here – straight to your inbox every Wednesday afternoon for free.
What’s the story?
The UK and EU are at once again at loggerheads over how to resolve difficulties at the Northern Irish border, following threats against port staff and fresh calls for the Government to abandon the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Britain’s departure from the European Union and the end of the Brexit transition period mean that there must be customs checks on goods entering the EU single market by travelling between the UK and the EU via Northern Ireland.
The perennial issue for legislators has been how to check goods without imposing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic: something all sides have pledged to avoid since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
But the solution agreed between the UK and EU in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement – the Northern Ireland Protocol – has not been running as smoothly as hoped.
Teething difficulties at the ports in Northern Ireland have been exacerbated by the European Commission’s threat on January 29 to block vaccines leaving the EU, which would effectively have imposed a hard border on the island.
The Commission’s brief triggering of Article 16 of the Protocol was quickly rescinded, but not before tensions between unionists and republicans in Northern Ireland were inflamed by the sudden prospect of a border.
Threats were made against port workers and loyalist graffiti was daubed on walls around Larne and Belfast. Northern Irish police say there is no indication of paramilitary involvement, but customs officials were sent home for their own safety.
Michael Gove, who is responsible for dealing with border issues in Northern Ireland on behalf of the UK Government, has condemned the Commission for opening a “Pandora’s Box” and called for the extension of a “grace period” in the Protocol.
The grace period, which would have ended in April, allows goods to travel across the border without some of the checks that will eventually be required, in an attempt to smooth the transition.
It is hoped that an extension would allow the issues to be resolved before further checks are imposed.
The Northern Ireland Protocol was Boris Johnson’s solution to the Northern Ireland border issue.
Removing the hated backstop from Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement – and collapsing the Conservative Party’s agreement with the DUP – Mr Johnson instead agreed that some checks would take place on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, if they were “at risk” of travelling onward into the EU.
That resolution was a controversial one. For DUP politicians, any checks on goods travelling between the four nations of the UK represent an unacceptable breach of the country’s own internal market.
The EU was eventually satisfied by the Northern Ireland Protocol and agreed it with Mr Johnson’s Government in October 2019. But it did not come into force until the end of the Brexit transition period on January 1, after which the UK was finally no longer treated as an EU member state.
For the Irish Government, which was opposed to Britain leaving the EU from the start, the issues in recent weeks are less to do with the EU’s vaccine threats and more to do with Brexit itself.
In a radio interview last week Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, said: “I would be open to advocating for modest extensions of grace periods when appropriate to try to, first of all, reassure people that we’re listening to them in Northern Ireland, because we are, and then, secondly, so that we can ensure that businesses can operate as best they can under the protocol.
“But that’s not the same thing as scrapping the protocol and it’s important to make a strong distinction between the two.”
Mr Coveney signalled the Irish Government would be open to an extension of the grace period, but said any settlement could not involve a renegotiation of the protocol and, by extension, the Withdrawal Agreement.
Meanwhile, my colleagues report that the EU is almost certain to accept a time-limited extension to between three and six months, not the two years Mr Gove has requested.
The picture in Northern Ireland is further complicated by continued DUP calls for the UK Government to trigger Article 16 itself, and abandon the protocol altogether.
The party is pursuing a series of political moves aimed at undermining the mechanism, including a boycott on engagement with the Irish Government on issues related to its operation and a vow to oppose any protocol-related legislation at the Assembly.
Other parties in the Stormont power-sharing agreement say the DUP’s goal of scrapping the protocol altogether is “unrealistic”, and it should focus on cooperation with other Northern Irish parties.
The Northern Ireland Assembly ultimately has a veto power over the protocol, but only in a vote every four years.
Until then, the SDLP, another party in the agreement, said unionists “need to learn the lesson that they should have learned a number of times over the past 100 years – the British Government will let you down and if you keep going to the right you’re going to end up in a worse position when you come back to the table”.
The Refresher take
For Brexit-watchers, the spectre of UK ministers in negotiation with the EU over Northern Ireland is familiar.
But if both sides cannot agree to an extension of the grace period that is long enough to resolve the issues at the border technically and peacefully, then more customs checks will be imposed.
The EU has little choice but to accept Mr Gove’s demand for an extension, since it was partly the Commission’s foolishness that caused the latest tensions.
Notwithstanding the vaccines debacle, the last few weeks have exposed fragilities in a customs arrangement that exporters and citizens were promised would be solid.
Mr Gove and his counterparts have an important but difficult few weeks ahead.
— to www.telegraph.co.uk