The UK Government will have “no hesitation” in triggering Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol if necessary due to trade difficulties, Boris Johnson has said.
During PMQs, the Prime Minister said “teething problems” had led to images of empty supermarkets on the island, but that the Government would step in to resolve any issues if they became “disproportionate”.
Mr Johnson said he would do this by invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which covers post-Brexit trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and which allows the EU or the UK to “unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures” if its application leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist”.
It comes as supermarkets and retailers grapple with post-Brexit arrangements for importing food products from Great Britain following the end of the transition period on 31 December.
The Prime Minister’s remarks followed a letter written on Tuesday by the chief executives of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Iceland, Co-op and Marks and Spencer to Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove over concerns about food supplies coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
Unhappy with Mr Johnson’s description of the issue as “teething problems”, DUP MP Ian Paisley (North Antrim) told MPs that the people of Northern Ireland had been “screwed over” by the protocol.
During a later urgent question on the issue, Mr Paisley told the Commons: “What did we do? What did we do to members on those benches over there to be screwed over by this protocol?
“Ask your hearts, every single one, what did we do? Because what has happened to this protocol – it has ruined trade in Northern Ireland and it is an insult to our intelligence to say it is a teething problem. Tell that to my constituents.”
Earlier during PMQs the DUP’s Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the Prime Minister that supply issues leading to many empty supermarket shelves were “caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol”.
Sir Jeffrey added: “So what I and the people of Northern Ireland need to know from the Prime Minister, as leader of the United Kingdom, is what his Government is going to do to address this, if he will consider invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to resolve these issues? Because the trader-support service is welcome, but it isn’t the solution alone.
“We need direct Government intervention to deal with this now.”
Mr Johnson replied: “I can tell him that at the moment goods are flowing effectively and in normal volumes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So far no lorries have been turned back.
“Yes of course there are teething problems and what I can confirm to him is that if there are problems that we believe are disproportionate then we will have no hesitation in invoking Article 16.”
However, SDLP MP Claire Hanna (Belfast South) urged the Government to resist the DUP’s “reckless” calls to trigger the mechanism.
Sir Jeffrey later voiced further concerns that supermarkets will face a “cliff edge” at the end of March unless a grace period where EU certification rules are relaxed is extended and called for “immediate intervention” from the Government.
But Mr Gove said the problems have now mostly been “overcome”.
Responding to Sir Jeffrey, he told the Commons: “Those shortages have now been overcome pretty much. But the right honourable gentleman is absolutely right that we need to make sure that we have a sustainable approach for the end of the grace period at the end of March.
“I will be working with Helen Dickinson (chief executive) of the British Retail Consortium and others to do just that.”
Mr Gove added: “Inevitably the impact of Covid and also steps taken by the French Government at their border have affected retail businesses across the UK, but it is important to stress that freight volumes into Northern Ireland ports are at normal levels for this time of year.
“There have been no significant queues and supermarkets are now generally reporting healthy deliveries of supplies into Northern Ireland.”
Mr Gove also announced that the Government will reinstate a margin scheme that will ensure that second hand car dealers will not pay the additional VAT on purchases from Great Britain.
He said: “I can confirm today that HMT and HMRC will reinstate a margin scheme in order to ensure that Northern Ireland customers need pay no more than those in any other part of the United Kingdom.”
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