UK must align with EU to ease Northern Ireland border checks, says Irish foreign minister

Northern Ireland protocol
Northern Ireland protocol

The UK must align itself with EU rules to escape many of the customs checks on British goods exported to Northern Ireland, the Irish foreign minister said on Thursday.

Writing in the The Telegraph, Simon Coveney said following Brussels’s rules on food safety and animal health would make post-Brexit trade between Northern Ireland and Britain “as light as possible”.

“The EU side is open to making it work,” Mr Coveney said ahead of negotiations next week over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“The years of Brexit negotiations and campaigning are over. Now is the moment for real political leadership.”

Lord Frost, the Cabinet minister handling talks with the EU, has ruled out any alignment.

He warned on Thursday that Brussels would undermine the peace process unless it showed more “common sense” over the Protocol, which created a customs border in the Irish Sea after Brexit.

“Among the biggest of the issues facing Northern Ireland is the way the Northern Ireland Protocol is currently working,” Lord Frost said in an article for the Belfast Telegraph.

Under the treaty, Northern Ireland continues to follow some EU Single Market rules with checks on goods entering it from Great Britain, which Brussels says are necessary in case they enter EU member Ireland.

Lord Frost said the numerous checks had led to “delays and complexity” for businesses and concerns among unionists. He demanded a lighter touch because the risk of many goods entering Ireland was small.

Mr Coveney said that the border checks and “inevitable” costs for consumers and businesses were the result of Brexit rather than the Protocol.

The European Commission began legal action against the UK after it unilaterally extended grace periods in the Protocol exempting some products from checks, which Brussels said broke international law.

“The current challenges ultimately cannot be addressed by the UK acting unilaterally to override provisions of the Protocol – that would only mean further instability, doubt and rancour,” Mr Coveney said.

Lord Frost warned that the Protocol was subject to the consent of Northern Irish voters, who head to the polls next year and will have a vote on whether to keep the treaty in four years’ time.

The former Brexit negotiator said the EU needed to focus on “genuine problems” rather than mitigating “risks that don’t exist”.

“Only if implemented in a pragmatic and proportionate way can the Protocol support the peace process,” he said.