Britain will on Wednesday call on Brussels to take urgent steps to de-escalate a looming Brexit crisis in Northern Ireland, as the threat of violence and border tensions increased in the region.
Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, will ask the European Commission to ease disruption to post-Brexit trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, including extending “grace periods” for checks on key goods.
The talks come as checks on animal products and food arriving from Great Britain at the region’s largest ports were suspended following threats made to staff enforcing new trade rules. Micheál Martin, Irish premier, said the threats were a “very sinister and ugly development”.
Mr Gove admitted that the problems arising from the Northern Ireland protocol — part of the Brexit deal — were more than just “teething problems” as claimed by prime minister Boris Johnson last month.
The protocol was part of Mr Johnson’s 2019 agreement, which paved the way for the UK to leave the customs union and single market; however it left Northern Ireland in the single market for goods and under EU customs rules.
Theresa May, former British prime minister, warned that such a deal would create a border in the Irish Sea and inflame the sensitivities of pro-UK unionists, who bitterly oppose the protocol.
“In the short term, there are a number of issues that I would not describe as teething problems,” Mr Gove said. “They are significant issues that bear on the lives of people in Northern Ireland, which do need to be resolved.”
Talks between Mr Gove and Maros Sefcovic, commission vice-president, will take place on Wednesday against a backdrop of growing political anger over Brussels’ handling of the Northern Ireland issue.
Last Friday the commission proposed overriding the NI protocol to stop vaccines entering the region from the EU, in effect recreating the border on the island of Ireland both sides had tried to avoid.
Mr Gove told MPs that decision — rescinded within hours — was “a serious mistake” and privately British officials are seething at the error. Unionists want Mr Gove to use the same “emergency cord” provisions to remove border controls on trade with the rest of the UK.
Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland first minister, and Michelle O’Neill, deputy first minister, are expected to convey the message that Brussels had undermined faith in the protocol in both communities in the region.
Mrs Foster’s Democratic Unionist party raised the stakes, publishing a five-point plan to “free” Northern Ireland from the protocol as it pledged to oppose all protocol-related measures in the regional assembly and said it “will not continue to act as though relationships [with Dublin] are normal”.
grace periods were intended to allow Northern Irish businesses and suppliers time to adapt to new checks. The first period expires at the end of March; Mr Gove wants to extend these and agree “permanent” solutions on border issues.
Mr Sefcovic said: “Throughout last year, we worked tirelessly to find workable solutions to implement the protocol and at the same time, to provide businesses and people in Northern Ireland with stability, while minimising disruption caused by Brexit in their everyday lives.”
He said he hoped the issues raised by Mr Gove would be addressed in the UK-EU joint committee, which oversees the implementation of the protocol.
The withdrawal of staff from the ports of Belfast and Larne comes amid local council anxiety about “sinister and menacing behaviour” and graffiti criticising the so-called Northern Ireland protocol in some areas dominated by hardline unionists.
Port staff in Northern Ireland have expressed anxiety about suspicious activity around their workplace, including apparent attempts by people to take down car registration numbers. The police said they had increased patrols at Larne port and other points of entry.
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council withdrew staff from inspection duties because of concerns about their safety. The council had 12 environmental health officers working at the port and other senior staff.
“It follows an upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour in recent weeks, including the appearance of graffiti within the local area referencing increasing tensions around the Northern Ireland protocol and describing port staff as ‘targets’,” the council said.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland, which has described the threats as “low level”, said it had no evidence to substantiate anonymous claims suggesting outlawed loyalist paramilitary groups were behind the threats.
“We are concerned about the actions of a number of individuals and small groups,” said Mark McEwan, PSNI assistant chief constable. “We don’t believe that those actions are organised. But they do give us cause for concern.”