UK-EU talks aim to defuse Brexit tensions over Northern Ireland

LONDON (AP) — Senior politicians from Britain, Northern Ireland and the European Union (EU) met yesterday in a bid to defuse post-Brexit trade tensions that have shaken Northern Ireland’s delicate political balance.

British Cabinet Minister Michael Gove, European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic and the leaders of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government held a video conference to discuss problems that have erupted barely a month after the United Kingdom (UK) made an economic split from the 27-nation EU.

Northern Ireland authorities halted veterinary checks and withdrew border staff this week from Belfast and Larne ports, and police stepped up patrols, after threatening graffiti appeared referring to port workers as targets.

Staff have also reported signs of suspicious behaviour, including people writing down vehicle licence plate numbers.

The border checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK are a contentious product of Brexit.

Since the UK left the EU’s economic structures at the end of 2020, customs and veterinary checks have been imposed on goods moving between Britain and the bloc — and on some British goods going to Northern Ireland, because it shares a border with EU member Ireland.

The checks are strongly opposed by pro-British Unionist politicians, who say they drive a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

They are calling on the British government to rip up a section of its divorce agreement with the EU known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, which gives the region a separate trade status to the rest of the UK.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which heads the power-sharing Belfast administration, is refusing to cooperate with the Irish government on implementing the new rules.

Police have warned that violent pro-British Loyalists could capitalise on the tensions, though they said the current threat appears to come from a small number of individuals rather than paramilitary groups.

The sensitivity of Northern Ireland’s status was underscored last week, when the EU threatened to ban shipments of coronavirus vaccines to Northern Ireland as part of moves to shore up the bloc’s supply. That would have drawn a hard border on the island of Ireland — exactly the scenario the Brexit deal was crafted to avoid.

British, Irish and Northern Ireland politicians all expressed alarm at the plan, and the EU dropped the idea.

The UK government is urging the bloc to take a more light-touch approach to border checks, which have already led to shortages and delays in getting some goods to Northern Ireland.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson accused the EU of undermining the Northern Ireland Protocol with its vaccines move. He tweeted that there must be “urgent action urgent action from the EU to resolve outstanding problems with Protocol implementation”.

Sefcovic tweeted that protecting peace in Northern Ireland “has always been EU’s absolute priority”.

He said the Northern Ireland Protocol was “the only way to protect Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all dimensions, protecting peace and stability on the island of Ireland”.