NI Protocol: Further delays for Irish Sea border checks

By John Campbell
BBC News NI Economics & Business Editor

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A ferry arriving at Belfast portImage source, Reuters
Image caption,
The protocol prevents a hard border with Ireland but some products need to be checked as they arrive from GB

The UK government has announced further delays to some Irish Sea border checks.

The checks are a requirement of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a deal reached by the UK and EU in 2019.

It means some products need to be checked as they arrive from GB but grace periods mean that not all the checks have been implemented.

Some of these grace periods were due to expire at the end of September but the government has now indefinitely extended them.

In a written statement, Brexit Minister Lord Frost said that the move was necessary to "provide space for further potential discussions" with the EU.

The UK wants a fundamental renegotiation of the protocol but the EU has said that is not possible, although it is prepared to consider additional flexibilities.

Image source, Aaron Chown
Image caption,
Lord Frost said it was a necessary move

Lord Frost's statement said: "The government will continue to operate the protocol on the current basis.

"This includes the grace periods and easements currently in force. Operational and other guidance will be updated to reflect this approach."

'No renegotiation', says EU

In a statement on Monday evening the European Commission said it noted Lord Frost's statement and continued to stress that "the Withdrawal Agreement is an international agreement".

"The Protocol is an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement and the agreed solution between the UK and the EU to the problems caused by Brexit for the island of Ireland," it said.

"Both sides are legally bound to fulfil their obligations under the Agreement.

"Our focus remains on identifying long-term, flexible and practical solutions to address issues related to the practical implementation of the Protocol that citizens and businesses in Northern Ireland are experiencing."

The European Commission said it would not agree to a renegotiation of the Protocol.

"Our approach to the Protocol is based on the achievement of stability, certainty and predictability in line with the objectives of the Good Friday Agreement and in order to protect the Single Market," it added.

Image caption,
Unionists say the protocol damages trade and threatens Northern Ireland's place in the UK

The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium has said that there can be no more "cliff-edge dates" when it comes to the protocol.

Aodhán Connolly, the organisation's director, said he hoped the UK government's decision "will be taken in the spirit of joint working" and that "both sides must move".

"This cannot be another can-kicking exercise. Northern Ireland is in a unique situation which requires a unique solution that is agreed by both the UK and EU," Mr Connolly said.

Unilateral action

In March, the UK unilaterally extended some grace periods.

That met with a furious response from the EU, which said that by acting alone the UK was in clear breach of the protocol.

The European Commission began a legal action against the UK, which is still continuing.

However in June, the UK formally requested an extension to the sausages grace period which was granted by the EU.

The EU said it was being "accommodating' and the UK described the move as "sensible".

The UK wants a "standstill" of all grace periods and legal actions as it attempts to persuade the EU to engage in a fundamental renegotiation of the protocol.

The EU says it will be as flexible as possible within the terms of the protocol but will not renegotiate.

Meanwhile the European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic is due to to visit Northern Ireland on Thursday and Friday.

Mr Sefcovic, the EU's lead negotiator on the protocol, will meet political, business and civic leaders.

He is also expected to hold a press conference on Friday.