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Brexit: UK ‘absolutely not’ trying to provoke row over Northern Ireland

Written by on 5 March 2021

The UK is “absolutely not” trying to provoke a row with the EU over post-Brexit border arrangements, after the government’s intervention saw the bloc threaten legal action, a cabinet minister has told Sky News.

Tensions rose over the Northern Ireland protocol, a key part of Britain’s divorce deal with the EU, once again this week after the UK took unilateral action to extend grace periods for businesses such as supermarkets and parcel operators.

Light-touch regulation schemes on goods from the rest of the UK transiting to Northern Ireland had been due to expire at the end of this month – after which businesses would have had to fully comply with new post-Brexit rules – but now they won’t end until October.

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Sectarian tensions mount over Brexit

European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic, who is in charge of implementing the protocol on behalf of the EU, has described the UK’s action as “a very negative surprise” and suggested legal action is imminent.

He told the Financial Times the bloc was already working on “infringement proceedings”, adding: “We are currently preparing it and it would be really something coming to our table very soon.

“The most precise term I can give you is really very soon.”

The Irish government has also reacted with anger to the UK government’s action, suggesting Britain had shown itself to be untrustworthy in negotiations over the implementation of the protocol.

But speaking to Sky News on Friday, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss played down the significance of the UK’s action.

“These are temporary easements and it’s perfectly common practice while deals are being implemented to have temporary easements in place,” she told the Ian King Live show.

“That is not a breach of the protocol and we’re very clear about that.”

A woman walks past graffiti saying 'No Irish Sea Border' in Belfast city centre, Northern Ireland Image: There is opposition to the protocol within Northern Ireland

She said that Lord Frost, the newly-appointed cabinet minister responsible for EU-UK relations, was “working closely with his EU counterparts to resolve these issues”.

“Ultimately, it is in the interests of both the EU and UK to make sure trade across the border works and that is what Lord Frost is committed to doing,” Ms Truss added.

Asked if the UK was attempting to provoke a row with the EU over the protocol, Ms Truss replied: “That is absolutely not the case.

“Lord Frost is determined to make sure that we have an effective trading relationship, that we put in place these temporary easements to see goods able to flow across the border, and that we make sure we implement the Northern Ireland protocol in a way that stands by the Good Friday Agreement.”

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And pressed on whether the government had attempted to sneak out news of the action during Wednesday’s budget, Ms Truss added: “I don’t know about the timing of any announcement, but I know he (Lord Frost) is working very hard to make sure we resolve these issues and we implement this agreement.”

On Thursday, the European Parliament declined to set a date to ratify the Brexit trade deal as part of the row.

Meanwhile, loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland withdrew their support for the Good Friday Agreement in protest at the impact of the protocol.

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