Issued on: 05/03/2021 – 04:50
A post-Brexit crisis over Northern Ireland deepened Thursday as Britain hit back at EU threats of legal action and pro-UK militants abandoned the restive province’s 1998 peace accord—with the painstakingly brokered EU-UK trade deal hanging in the balance.
The British government insisted it was taking “sensible and practical steps” to fix trade problems afflicting Northern Ireland since Brexit took full effect, and denied it was breaching its EU divorce treaty in the process.
But Brussels and Dublin, threatening to sue Britain over the unilateral changes announced Wednesday, complained of a betrayal of trust in another fraught development for London’s separation from the European Union.
The crisis has imperilled the overarching UK-EU trade deal with key MEPs pledging to refuse ratification unless Britain changes course.
Without prior agreement with the EU, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government said it was extending a post-Brexit grace period and deferring checks on agri-foods entering Northern Ireland from Britain, undermining a key plank of the divorce pact.
“If the UK simply cannot be trusted because they take unilateral action in an unexpected way without negotiation, well then the British government leaves the EU with no option” than legal action, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told RTE radio on Thursday.
German MEP Bernd Lange, the head of the European Parliament’s trade committee, said on Twitter Brussels lawmakers would vote down the deal if the Brexit divorce deal was broken.
“Still valid,” Bernd wrote, pointing to a previous statement that said any violation, or threat to violate, the divorce terms would mean a rejection of the trade bill.
Still valid: „Should the UK authorities breach – or threaten to breach – the Withdrawal Agreement, through the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill… or in any other way, the European Parliament will, under no circumstances, ratify any agreement between the EU and the UK” 11.9.
— Bernd Lange (@berndlange) March 4, 2021
Meanwhile London faced pressure from the other side of the fractious debate after pro-UK paramilitaries said Wednesday they were abandoning support for Northern Ireland’s 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, insisting on the need to rip up the EU deal entirely.
The Loyalist Communities Council emphasised that unionist opposition to the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland Protocol should remain “peaceful and democratic”.
But after previous threats were levelled against EU customs officials in Northern Ireland, Downing Street said it was working with the territory’s police force to investigate fresh threats made against senior minister Michael Gove.
The council’s announcement offered more evidence that Northern Ireland’s delicate balance of peace is being destabilised as a result of Brexit, with unionists furious over new border checks that they say are separating them by stealth from the rest of the UK.
“If you or the EU is not prepared to honour the entirety of the (Good Friday) agreement then you will be responsible for the permanent destruction of the agreement,” the paramilitary council told Johnson in a letter.
The EU, on the contrary, says the checks are needed to preserve Northern Ireland’s special place in the Brexit framework and guard against goods entering its single market across the porous border with EU member Ireland.
Britain has chafed at the terms of the January 2020 Brexit agreement it signed, part of which keeps its territory of Northern Ireland in the EU’s customs area, essentially creating a customs border down the Irish Sea.
Some supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland went bare in the first weeks of this year, after a post-Brexit transition period ended and Britain definitively left the EU single market on January 1.
The changes have caused widespread confusion among businesses, with some UK suppliers refusing to ship goods across the Irish Sea.
Johnson’s spokesman denied the government was violating the Brexit treaty by prolonging the grace period for supermarkets for six months.
“These types of operational measures are well precedented and common in other international trade agreements, and are entirely consistent with our intention to fulfil our obligations under the protocol in good faith,” he said.
“We remain committed to the Northern Ireland Protocol but we just want to address those areas where there are issues that have arisen,” he said, highlighting food in supermarkets and customs problems with sending parcels across the Irish Sea.
In light of the loyalists’ announcement, the spokesman added that the government remained “fully committed” to the 1998 peace deal, “in all of its dimensions”.
“We will continue to safeguard Northern Ireland’s integral place in the United Kingdom. We will prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland,” he said.