Northern Ireland’s first minister on Friday said the European Union’s move to take legal action over alleged breaches of the Brexit divorce deal by the United Kingdom showed it was “only interested” in protecting itself, not the landmark 1998 Belfast peace agreement.
The EU said on Wednesday it would take legal action after the UK government unilaterally extended a grace period for checks on food imports to Northern Ireland, a move Brussels said violated the terms of the pact it brokered with London late last year.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
Reacting to the move, Arlene Foster said the EU’s actions showed its priority was protecting its 27-member trading bloc.
“What they’re only interested in is protecting their bloc, they’re not interested, as they claim to be, in protecting the Belfast agreement,” Northern Ireland’s first minister told BBC radio.
“If they were, they would not be taking the action that they’re taking at present,” she added.
Foster, who heads the pro-unionist Democratic Unionist Party, said the purpose of the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland Protocol was to stop goods from the UK entering the EU single market, but its effects, and the action taken in both London and Brussels, were “totally disproportionate” to the risks.
“We need [the protocol] to be replaced because certainly extending grace periods are only sticking plasters to what are really fundamental problems in terms of trade,” she said.
“There is a fundamental misunderstanding with the European Union as to the damage that they are doing.”
Loyalists pull support for peace deal
Since the EU’s promise of legal action, Northern Irish loyalist paramilitary groups have said they are temporarily withdrawing support for the 1998 peace agreement due to concerns over the Brexit deal.
Also known as the Good Friday agreement, the 1998 peace deal ended three decades of violence between mostly Catholic nationalists fighting for a united Ireland and mostly Protestant unionists, or loyalists, who want Northern Ireland to stay part of the UK.
The groups pledged “peaceful and democratic” opposition to the deal, stating they would not back it again until their rights were restored and the Northern Ireland Protocol was amended to ensure unfettered trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Preserving the delicate peace in Northern Ireland without allowing the UK a back door into the EU’s markets through the 500km (310 mile) UK-Irish land border was one of the most difficult issues of the Brexit divorce talks.
The agreement reached at the conclusion of those negotiations establishes tariff and quota-free exchange of goods but sets up veterinary and customs checks and other obstacles to the previously seamless commerce between the pair.
Contentiously, it also imposes new checks on some trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The checks have led to problems with the importation of a range of goods into Northern Ireland from other parts of the UK since it broke away from the EU’s orbit on January 1, 2021.
Businesses in the region have warned they are struggling to cope with the new red tape.
Amid the disruption, the UK announced on Wednesday that it was unilaterally extending until October a temporary “grace period” waiving checks on agri-food goods entering Northern Ireland. It had been due to end on March 31.
Trade minister Liz Truss on Friday defended the move, saying the UK had not breached the Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
“These are temporary easements and it’s perfectly common practice whilst deals are being implemented to have temporary easements in place,” Truss told UK broadcaster Sky News on Friday.
“That is not a breach of the protocol and we’re very clear about that.”