UK, EU seek to calm Northern Ireland tensions after spat

Staff in Northern Ireland conducting post-Brexit checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea have faced intimidation and threats in recent weeks.
Staff in Northern Ireland conducting post-Brexit checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea have faced intimidation and threats in recent weeks.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - The UK and EU agreed to work "intensively" to settle their differences over the Northern Ireland border as they seek to dial down a controversy which has threatened to reignite the most contentious element of the Brexit settlement.

UK Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic met with the first minister and deputy first minister of Northern Ireland on Wednesday (Feb 3), a discussion that was "productive," according to a joint statement.

The meeting came after UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson threatened to suspend parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol due to the disruption it is causing to trade across the Irish Sea. In a letter to Sefcovic, Gove called for the extension of grace periods which allow some checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK to be skipped.

Tensions had risen significantly over the past week after the European Commission said it would control exports of vaccines to Northern Ireland - blindsiding the UK and Irish governments and infuriating unionist political leaders. Even though the EU reversed course within hours, the move has damaged trust between the two sides.

At a meeting of EU diplomats in Brussels earlier in the day, Ireland's ambassador told the Commission that its decision had undermined trust in the protocol as well as the peace process it was designed to protect, according to a note of the meeting seen by Bloomberg News.

Staff in Northern Ireland conducting post-Brexit checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea have also faced intimidation and threats in recent weeks, a development condemned by Gove and Sefcovic.

"Both condemned unreservedly any threats or intimidation, noting that the safety and welfare of the people of Northern Ireland and that of our staff would always be the utmost priority," they said.

The leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Arlene Foster, continued to demand the so-called protocol be scrapped.

"Sticking plaster solutions and grace periods that kick the can down the road will not solve these problems," she said. "The Northern Ireland Protocol has not worked, cannot work."