Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has defended the UK’s decision to unilaterally extend grace periods on Irish Sea border checks. Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney hit out at Westminster for not consulting the EU last week when a decision was made to extend the period until October.
Mr Coveney insisted his job is to implement the protocol – agreed in the Brexit divorce bill – in accordance with the law.
In an interview with News Letter, Mr Lewis said he told the Irish chief the decision to extend grace periods was in “everybody’s interests” and the UK would continue to work towards a solution.
The first grace period was due to expire at the end of the month and would have resulted in supermarkets and other retailers having to provide export health certificates for all shipments of animal products.
Mr Lewis said he told Ireland’s foreign minister that “if we hadn’t taken these actions last week, we’d have been in a really difficult position for the protocol”.
He added: “Actually, it’s in everybody’s interests, particularly actually I would say the Irish government and the EU that we find a way to make sure the protocol works”.
The protocol was created to prevent a hard border on the Island of Ireland.
As a result, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market and customs union, while the rest of Great Britain is not.
Mr Lewis added the protocol “has to work for all communities”.
“My job is to ensure that what has been agreed, as a mechanism to deal with the disruption that Brexit causes on the island of Ireland, which is the protocol, is part of an international treaty, as part of international law.”
He added: “Of course, the EU has been considering and will consider further if flexibilities need to be accommodated, if there are genuine problems in terms of implementation, how we solve them.
“But that has got to be done collectively between the EU and the UK.
“We cannot move forward on the basis of one side just deciding unilaterally ‘Well, this is what must be done and we can’t wait for the other sides to agree with us’, and that’s essentially what the British Government has done.”
Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster has called on the Prime Minister to “replace” the protocol.
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Speaking on Friday as Boris Johnson embarked on a visit to Northern Ireland, the DUP leader said the agreement was “damaging to the economic and constitutional position of Northern Ireland”.
Mr Johnson defended the UK’s position and said the UK Government will be taking action in accordance with the law.
He said: “What we’re doing is taking some lawful, some technical measures to build up confidence in the east-west operation.
“We think it’s lawful, and indeed, we think it’s right, in view of the impact on the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, and the need to have consent from both communities.”