Ulster holds its breath as loyalists march and port staff are threatened over Irish border row

Boris Johnson has threatened to suspend parts of the Brexit deal unless the EU agrees to ease checks on goods crossing between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The Prime Minister vowed yesterday to do ‘everything we need to do’ to ensure trade is conducted as smoothly as possible across the Irish Sea border.

As part of Brexit negotiations, the UK and EU agreed to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which is designed to avoid the need for physical border checkpoints on the island of Ireland.

But this has led to disruption on goods crossing the Irish Sea, with new checks imposed on those moving from the mainland to Ulster.

Since the arrangements came into force on January 1, supermarkets have reported depleted shelves while concerns have been raised that Northern Ireland’s place within the UK is being undermined.

Ominous: A group of masked loyalists take to the streets of Belfast

Amid growing tensions, graffiti has been daubed on buildings and checks at ports have been suspended following threats against staff.

A group of masked men were pictured on the streets of east Belfast, but this has been linked to an internal row within the loyalist paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force rather than Brexit.

At Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday, Mr Johnson said he would take the drastic step of suspending parts of the Brexit agreement unless the problems can be resolved in crisis talks with the EU.

The Government has demanded the need for some checks already in place is removed, while existing grace periods on goods such as chilled meats are extended until 2023.

Under Article 16 of the protocol, either side are able to unilaterally suspend aspects of the arrangements if they are causing major problems. The Prime Minister was asked what action he will take by DUP MP Ian Paisley, who said his North Antrim constituents had been made to feel like foreigners in their own country.

Threats: Graffiti daubed on port buildings

Threats: Graffiti daubed on port buildings

‘Tea and sympathy will not cut the mustard,’ the son of the late Reverend Ian Paisley added.

Mr Johnson responded: ‘We will do everything we need to do, whether legislatively or indeed by triggering Article 16 of the protocol, to ensure that there is no barrier down the Irish Sea.’

The Prime Minister spoke to Stormont first minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster yesterday morning. 

According to the DUP, Mr Johnson told her he believed the checks had gone ‘beyond the bounds of common sense’ and said he wanted to resolve the outstanding issues by the end of next month.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove last night took part in a video conference with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, Mrs Foster and Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Fein.

Before the meeting, Mr Gove wrote to his EU counterpart to call for the extension until 2023 of a series of post-Brexit grace periods that have already been put in place for supermarket goods, chilled meats, parcels, medicines and pets crossing the Irish Sea.

Threats: Graffiti daubed on port buildings

Threats: Graffiti daubed on port buildings

The first of those grace periods is due to expire in April. Tensions over the protocol have been heightened following the events of last Friday when the European Commission was forced to backtrack on a threat to use Article 16 to stop the export of vaccines to the UK. In his letter to Mr Sefcovic, Mr Gove accused the EU of making a ‘grave error’ that had ‘profoundly undermined the operation of the protocol and cross-community confidence in it’. ‘What is required now is an urgent reset to put the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, the people of Northern Ireland, and indeed the island of Ireland, first,’ he added.

In a joint statement, Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic last night said they had agreed the two sides would ‘immediately work intensively to find solutions to outstanding issues’ with a meeting to be held in London next week. 

The protocol posing problems for UK

What is this ‘protocol’?

As part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, the EU and UK drew up the Northern Ireland Protocol to guarantee an open border between the EU and Ulster, with no controls on exports. Instead there are new customs and regulatory checks on some products travelling between the British mainland and Northern Ireland. This is because Ulster remains part of the EU single market for goods while the rest of the UK has left.

Why are Unionists so upset?

They believe the protocol has created a barrier between the Province and the rest of the UK, undermining the constitutional integrity of the Union. Since the protocol came into force on January 1, traders have had problems shipping goods across the Irish Sea leading to depleted supermarket shelves. This is raising fears that Northern Ireland will develop stronger economic ties with the Irish Republic than Great Britain, which is currently its biggest trading partner.

How angry are they?

Unionist politicians are demanding that the Government intervene to either address issues with the protocol or dump it completely. They have called on Boris Johnson to trigger a mechanism within the protocol – Article 16 – to unilaterally suspend aspects of its operation and to enter fresh negotiations with the EU on the problems. Police have also raised concerns over simmering discontent within the loyalist community, with sinister graffiti threatening border staff.

How’s this linked to jabs?

Tensions over the protocol have been heightened following the events of last Friday when the European Commission was forced to backtrack on a threat to use Article 16 to block exports of vaccines to the UK. While the EU stepped back from the brink, after an evening of frantic diplomacy, the episode further angered Unionists and emboldened them to press their demands for an end to the protocol.

Can trade be made smoother?

Grace periods have been rolled out to limit Brexit bureaucracy. Supermarkets and other food retailers have been given three months to adjust to new food checks. Sausages and other chilled meats are due to be prohibited from entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, but there is a six month grace period before the ban comes into force. The Government has requested these both be extended until 2023. Restrictions on the movement of pets across the sea won’t be imposed until the summer, although ministers want an agreement so they’re never needed.

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