The Government is focused on making Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol work, not ditching it, a Cabinet minister has insisted.
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis was commenting ahead of a Government meeting with the European Commission to discuss disruption and political tensions associated with the new Irish Sea trading arrangements.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic will jointly chair a meeting on Wednesday afternoon of the UK/EU committee that has responsibility for implementing the protocol.
Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland are demanding the end of the protocol, claiming it has driven an economic wedge between the region and the rest of the UK, undermining the Union as a consequence.
The protocol was designed by the EU and UK to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
It achieves this by moving regulatory and customs checks to the Irish Sea, with goods imported into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK subject to a range of new processes.
This has caused some disruption to trade since it came into effect on December 31 – disruption that could intensify significantly on April 1 when a grace period currently limiting the bureaucracy applied to imported supermarket goods ends.
The Government has asked the European Commission for extensions to that grace period – and a series of other exemptions now in operation – until January 2023 to provide space to find long-term solutions to the issues.
Ahead of the joint committee meeting, Mr Lewis made clear that the Government is not of the view that the protocol – which was a key plank of the Withdrawal Agreement – should be scrapped.
Asked whether it should be ditched, Mr Lewis told BBC Radio Ulster: “No, the protocol is a legal agreement that’s there, that’s in place, and we’ve got to make sure that we make it work in a positive way for people in Northern Ireland.”
He stressed that Stormont Assembly members will have the opportunity to vote to keep or remove the protocol in 2024.
The minister acknowledged it has caused some disruption in its early weeks of operation.
“I do understand that the lived experience of some people in Northern Ireland is not what it should be under the protocol, we’ve got to get that put right,” he said.
While there are new checks on trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, the protocol also offers Northern Ireland-based traders unfettered access to sell into the GB market, as well as into the EU single market.
Advocates of the arrangements believe this dual market access offers a significant economic opportunity for Northern Ireland.
Mr Lewis also highlighted that aspect of the protocol ahead of the committee meeting.
“Businesses do recognise this, it offers a huge competitive advantage and opportunity to Northern Ireland for businesses to invest in Northern Ireland to grow and base and develop in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster said any extension to the grace periods will only be “sticking plasters”.
She reiterated her demand for the protocol to be axed.
Mrs Foster and Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill will participate in Wednesday’s meeting.
“I will again be pointing out that the protocol is doing untold damage to the trading relationship of the internal market of the United Kingdom,” Mrs Foster told Radio Ulster.
“It is having a hugely disproportionate impact on Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.”
While all the main unionist parties are campaigning for the end of the protocol, the main pro-Remain parties in Northern Ireland – Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance – insist the protocol is needed to mitigate the impact of Brexit.