Irish PM warns EU will only 'fine tune' Northern Ireland Brexit rules

Irish PM warns EU will only ‘fine tune’ Northern Ireland Brexit rules as Tories say bloc just used peace process as a ‘cynical negotiating tactic’ ahead of showdown talks between Michael Gove and Brussels counterpart

  • Tensions rising in Northern Ireland over new trade barriers with mainland Britain 
  • Irish PM Micheal Martin suggested EU is only looking at ‘fine tuning’ NI protocol
  • Tories accused bloc of using peace as ‘cynical’ negotiating ploy during Brexit
  • Michael Gove is meeting EU counterpart for showdown talks in London later 

The Irish PM today insisted the EU is only looking at ‘fine tuning’ the Northern Ireland protocol despite rising anger about trade barriers with Britain.

Micheal Martin played down the prospect of significant changes as he blamed ‘teething’ problems and urged unionists to ‘pull back’.

But the EU’s tough line has drawn condemnation from Tories who said it was becoming clear the bloc only used the need to preserve peace on the island as a ‘cynical’ tactic in Brexit negotiations.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove vowed to ‘stand up’ for the people of Northern Ireland in showdown talks in London tonight with Brussels counterpart Maros Sefcovic.

However, UK government sources are not hopeful that the discussions will secure any breakthrough. 

The scale of the issue was underlined today as a survey showed 38 per cent of businesses trading between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain had seen the volume of goods fall over the past fortnight. 

Micheal Martin (left) played down the prospect of significant changes as he blamed ‘teething’ problems and urged unionists to ‘pull back’. Maros Sefcovic (right) is meeting Michael Gove in London later

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove vowed to ‘stand up’ for the people of Northern Ireland

As part of Brexit negotiations, the UK and EU agreed to the Northern Ireland protocol which is designed to avoid the need for a border on the island of Ireland. 

But this has led to disruption on goods crossing the Irish Sea, with new checks imposed on those moving from Britain to the province.

Since the arrangements came into force on January 1, supermarkets have reported empty shelves while concerns have been raised that Northern Ireland’s place within the UK is being undermined.

Boris Johnson has threatened to suspend parts of the Withdrawal Agreement unless the EU agrees to relax the checks.

The Government has called for the extension until 2023 of a series of grace periods that are in place for supermarket goods, chilled meats, parcels, medicines and pets crossing the Irish Sea. But the EU has signalled any extensions will be much more limited. 

Speaking on RTE’s Morning Ireland, Mr Martin said both sides needed to ‘cool it’ after the EU’s extraordinary threat to suspend the protocol in order to block coronavirus vaccine exports – which was later humiliatingly dropped.

‘There are bound to be teething issues and teething problems and certain people were not as prepared as they could have been in relation to the implications of Brexit,’ Mr Martin said.

‘We’ve witnessed that ourselves in the Republic, in respect of many companies not being as prepared as we might have thought they would have been.’

He added: ‘I’m engaged with the president of the Commission on the protocol to see if we can fine-tune it, and work on it.

‘I would say in the context of the island of Ireland and Northern Ireland and we all need to cool it down because I think that the debate around protocol got to too high a level, and tensions were rising unnecessarily.’

Asked about the deteriorating relationship between the Irish Government and unionists, Mr Martin said unionists need to ‘reflect and pull back’ on the matter.

‘Stand back from the nitty gritty and the teething issues that are undoubtedly there and they are there,’ he said.

‘I’m hearing what unionism is saying, they are under pressure, but they need to, I believe, take a different tack and look at this in a more constructive way for the future of the people on the island.’

Tory MPs today lashed out a letter from Mr Sefcovic to Mr Gove ahead of their meeting.

It warned that ‘blanket derogations’ from EU rules on chilled meats and parcels ‘cannot be agreed beyond what the protocol foresees already’.

He said the British Government had committed to a ‘path towards full compliance with’ EU law. 

But he signalled that a limited extension of the grace periods may be possible. ‘It is with this in mind that we should work together to find pragmatic solutions,’ he added. 

Tensions have been rising in Northern Ireland with unionists furious about the trade barriers put in place with the rest of the UK

Mr Sefcovic warned it would be possible to remove the restrictions on plants and pets crossing the Irish Sea only if the Government was willing to ‘align with the relevant EU rules’.

During Cabinet Office questions in the Commons, former Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said: ‘The arrogance and intransigence expressed in Commissioner Sefcovic’s recent letter to (Michael Gove) has caused many of us to conclude that the EU’s professed concern for Northern Ireland was only ever a disguise for their own cynical negotiating objectives.

‘So will he take a tough approach with the EU on fixing the immediate problems to the protocol but also developing a replacement so that we can remove it altogether in the future?’

Mr Gove replied: ‘My right honourable friend accurately reflects the sentiments and feelings of many in this House and beyond.

‘And it is vitally important that we do work constructively in order to ensure the people of Northern Ireland recognise that the United Kingdom Government will be standing up in every forum and in every way for their rights as integral members of this great nation.’

Mr Gove has criticised red tape impacting trade from Britain to Northern Ireland, including a ban on exports of plants if they have any soil on them. 

He told the Commons European scrutiny committee earlier this week: ‘It does not threaten, I believe, the integrity of the EU single market to have bulbs ordered from a wholesaler in Scotland or England which will then be planted in a garden in Belfast or Ballymena,’

Whitehall officials last night suggested the letter showed Brussels does not fully comprehend the gravity of the situation. 

A Government source said: ‘The meeting is a chance for the commission to show they understand the situation on the ground in Northern Ireland.’

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