Northern Ireland could face a fresh period of “turbulence” this July if the EU and UK governments cannot resolve fundamental differences on post-Brexit arrangements for the region, a UK minister warned on Monday.
Lord David Frost, the Cabinet minister responsible for implementing the Brexit deal, told a committee of MPs that current discussions between London and Brussels were hung up on “superficialities” and warned that time was running out to fix the fundamentals of the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol and avoid fresh trouble.
Alluding to the so-called ‘Marching Season’, where the region’s Protestant Orange Order holds traditional parades which culminate on July 12, Frost said progress needed to be made “sooner rather than later” to avoid the risk of deterioration in the region.
“There is a real-life timetable in Northern Ireland; coronavirus restrictions are coming to an end, we all know the late spring and summer can sometimes be turbulent . . . and we have to take that reality into account,” he said.
The Northern Ireland protocol, which creates a trade border in the Irish Sea to avoid the need for a return of a north-south border on the island of Ireland, has proved hugely controversial among the mainly Protestant Unionist community since it came into force in January.
It has been blamed in part for 10 days of street violence in mainly protestant Loyalist areas last month and broader political turbulence in the main Unionist political parties, forcing the resignation at the end of April of the former Democratic Unionist party first minister Arlene Foster.
Frost stopped short of setting a hard deadline for progress in talks with Brussels, which he described as largely technical in nature and not addressing the fundamental issues thrown up by the protocol.
These include a greater “chilling effect” than expected on businesses in Great Britain trading with Northern Ireland, disrupting the UK internal market and affecting Northern Ireland businesses and consumers in a way that has raised political tensions.
“We’ll always be willing to talk about anything whenever, but we all have a responsibility to avoid a further deterioration and difficulties in the situation and that is obviously a possibility as we go into the spring and summer,” he told parliament’s European Scrutiny committee.
EU officials say Brussels is prepared to discuss, within the limits of EU law, some flexibility on the protocol, which requires all goods travelling from Great Britain into Northern Ireland to conform with EU customs rules and product regulations.
The European Commission on Monday said it felt expert-level talks were “constructive” and that the two sides were “making progress” but the UK needed to honour the deal it signed in October 2019 to solve the border issue caused by Brexit.
“If we are to achieve our goals, then we need to implement our agreement. This is a shared responsibility and we expect the UK to uphold its political commitment,” the commission added.
Separately on Monday government officials confirmed the UK had submitted a detailed road-map for a gradual phasing in of new checks on agrifood products, starting in October and continuing into 2022.
However, Frost repeated that the technical talks were not getting to the “heart of the difficulties” posed by the protocol and that the EU needed to recognise its mutual obligation to preserve the 1998 Good Friday peace deal, which ended three decades of sectarian violence in the region, when seeking solutions.
He concluded that the British government took its responsibilities to the Good Friday deal, and the “stability, security and prosperity” of the region very seriously. “I hope the EU recognises that, and takes that into account in discussions they have with us,” he said.