UK and EU hold 'frank but constructive' talks on NI trade rules

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image captionThe European Commission's Maros Sefcovic arrives in London to meet the UK's Michael Gove

The UK and the EU have had a "frank but constructive discussion" on problems implementing post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland.

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove met the vice-president of the European Commission, Maros Sefcovic, in London on Thursday evening.

Both sides reiterated their "full commitment" to the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol.

But they pledged to meet again to "address all outstanding issues".

Mr Gove had previously called for an urgent "reset" on the arrangements, which see checks taking place between Northern Ireland and Great Britain - calling for a two-year "grace period" on the rules.

But the Irish Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said any pause in enforcement could only be a matter of months, telling the BBC: "It can't be a year."

Writing to Mr Gove ahead of the meeting, Mr Sefcovic said the existing protocol was "the only way" to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

However, Northern Ireland's First Minister, Arlene Foster - who wants the protocol scrapped - said "more rigorous implementation" was "not going to work".

The Northern Ireland Protocol was designed to ensure an open border remained on the island of Ireland after Brexit.

But to make it work, the two sides agreed that Northern Ireland would remain in the single market for goods, unlike the rest of the UK.

This meant checks had to be introduced on some goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Since the new rules came into force, there has been tensions at ports in Northern Ireland, with disruption to some food supplies and online deliveries.

Checks at some ports were temporarily suspended at the beginning of February over "sinister" threats made to some border staff who were carrying out checks on goods.

Unionists want the protocol to be scrapped because they say it damages trade and threatens Northern Ireland's place in the UK union.

DUP leader Mrs Foster accused Mr Sefcovic of having his "head in the sand" over the issues, and called for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to "step up" to sort out the issues.

But the EU has stood by this part of the post-Brexit trade agreement, finalised in December and coming into force on New Year's Day.

'A good day's work'

In a joint statement after their meeting, Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic reiterated their "full commitment" to the Good Friday Agreement and to the "proper implementation" of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

They said this was necessary to ensure stability, prevent a hard border and "impact as little as possible on the everyday life" of people living on the island of Ireland.

The statement also said they had "taken in to account" the views expressed by both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland.

It is understood Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic will hold a virtual meeting with Northern Ireland business leaders next week, before further discussions on 24 February.

Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, described the meeting as "a good day's work".

In a tweet, he said the "focus now" was on "cooperation to implement what's been agreed in the protocol... and to work on solutions to outstanding issues".

Sinn Fein's deputy first minister Michelle O'Neill said she welcomed the two sides' commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and implementation of the protocol "protecting the gains of peace, and avoiding a hard border in Ireland".

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood told the BBC that the language of the statement was "more constructive", but Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken said the protocol was "breaking" Northern Ireland's links with Great Britain, which "shouldn't be allowed to happen".