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UK, EU vow to ‘spare no effort’ to fix Northern Ireland’s Brexit problems

British and EU leaders vowed yesterday to work on upholding Northern Ireland’s hard-won peace and stability, as trade hitches destabilise the territory prompting angry words following Brexit.

After “frank but constructive” talks in London, senior UK minister Michael Gove and EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said they would “spare no effort” on finding solutions, after the supply of food and other goods was hit in Northern Ireland.

In a joint statement, the officials said they were intent on protecting the Good Friday peace agreement that ended three decades of violence, and “impacting as little as possible on the everyday life of communities in both Ireland and Northern Ireland”.

Britain left the EU’s single market and customs union at the end of 2020. But both sides agreed in a special protocol to keep Northern Ireland inside the market, so avoiding the need for a potentially troublesome hard border with EU member Ireland.

Going into the talks, Sefcovic stressed that implementing the protocol is “a two-way street” and Britain had to abide by commitments it made just in December ahead of the Brexit divorce.

“These must be urgently implemented,” he said, after sending a letter to Gove complaining that Britain was failing to hold up its side of the bargain on matters such as customs checks for goods entering Northern Ireland.

“We are ready to look into these teething challenges while respecting the objectives of the protocol. We see the protocol as a solution, not a problem,” Sefcovic added.

Pro-British leaders in Northern Ireland have been demanding the protocol be scrapped after seeing shortages of goods coming from Britain due to new checks imposed as part of the Brexit trade framework.

Gove had urged Sefcovic to set out “rapid action” to fix the issues, covering everything from chilled meat rules to pet travel regulations, along with a demand to extend a three-month grace period for supermarkets until 2023.

Fears of sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland were fuelled after the European Commission said it would restrict Covid-19 vaccine exports as the bloc struggles with its own supply.

Although the EU quickly backtracked, the abortive move has intensified opposition to the new regulations, and threats against officials forced the temporary suspension of customs checks at two ports in Northern Ireland this month.

The joint statement papered over the testy exchanges that preceded yesterday’s London meeting, but agreed that the commitments made by both sides in December “form a foundation for our cooperation”.

Gove and Sefcovic pledged to convene their joint UK-EU committee on Northern Ireland “no later than 24 February to provide the necessary political steer and approval to this work in the spirit of collaboration, responsibility and pragmatism”.


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