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Downing Street is embroiled in a legal tug of war, potentially threatening the stability of Northern Ireland and further eroding confidence in post-Brexit UK trade.
As the EU began legal proceedings over the UK’s decision to extend grace periods on products moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, said to be an infringement of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) has launched a judicial review of the protocol itself.
The UK move to extend grace periods until October followed weeks of criticism by industry insiders that the country was unprepared for implementation of the additional customs checks.
A Downing Street spokesperson told The Loadstar: “These aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol have only been in force for 70 days and we saw the challenges faced by supermarkets and others in the early weeks of January as a result of the Joint Committee agreement only being reached in December.
“That’s why it is right to provide a proper further period for them to plan ahead, particularly in the current circumstances of a global pandemic.”
Brussels’ legal response was expected, after reports circulated that the UK move caused “fury”, but it is also reportedly adopting a “two-pronged” approach, activating the withdrawal agreement’s dispute mechanism, which could allow for arbitration.
The Downing Street spokesperson told The Loadstar that it would respond in “due course” to the letters it had received from the European Commission, but added that it had been clear the measures taken are “temporary, operational steps” intended to minimise disruption in Northern Ireland.
“They are lawful and part of a progressive and good faith implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol,” added the spokesperson.
“Low key operational measures like these are well precedented and common in the early days of major international treaties. In some areas, the EU also seems to need time to implement the detail of our agreements. This is a normal process when implementing new treaties and not something that should warrant legal action.
“All sides need to keep in mind the fact that the Protocol depends on cross-community consent and confidence if it is to work and deliver our common objective of protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its dimensions, North-South and East-West.
“We look to continue discussing the issues within the Joint Committee framework in a constructive fashion.”
EU vice president Maros Sefcovic said: “The EU and the UK agreed the protocol together. Unilateral decisions and international law violations by the UK defeat its very purpose and undermine trust between us. The UK must properly implement it if we are to achieve our objectives. That is why we are launching legal action.”
Contrary to Mr Sefcovic’s claim that the protocol is the “only way to protect the Good Friday Agreement… and preserve peace and stability”, UUP leader Steve Aiken has expressed “deep concern” over the “damage” to the Good Friday Agreement from the protocol.
“The British government, the Irish government and, indeed, the EU have all repeatedly reaffirmed the importance of protecting the Good Friday Agreement,” said Mr Aiken. “The 2018 Withdrawal Act expressly requires [Britain] in exercising any powers under it to ‘act in a way that is compatible with the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998’. We believe the protocol fundamentally and detrimentally changes the status of Northern Ireland.
“It seriously damages the economic, societal and democratic fabric of [NI] and that it is unlawful and incompatible with the Good Friday Agreement and the Withdrawal Act itself,” he added.
Of central concern to the unionists is enforcing checks on GB-NI goods movements renders the region a third country to the rest of Great Britain, increasing costs and inhibiting the free flow of goods between the union, a central tenet of the Good Friday Agreement.
Following the first review in Belfast’s Royal Courts of Justice this morning, Mr Aiken described the protocol as “running roughshod” over the agreement.
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