The Prime Minister has insisted “goodwill and common sense” will deliver resolutions to contentious post-Brexit Irish Sea trading arrangements.
Boris Johnson expressed confidence that issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol are “eminently solvable”, amid a further escalation of political and societal tensions over the terms of his Brexit divorce deal.
The EU is considering legal action against the UK after the Government unilaterally extended a grace period that is currently limiting red tape associated with the protocol governing trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
MEPs are also set to delay formal ratification of the wider trade and co-operation agreement pending the outcome of the latest row between London and Brussels.
In a separate development, loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland have withdrawn their support for the historic Good Friday peace agreement in protest against arrangements they contend have driven an economic wedge between the region and the rest of the UK.
Their move was conveyed in a letter to both Mr Johnson and Irish premier Micheal Martin.
Asked about the letter from the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC), an umbrella group representing three outlawed paramilitary groups, Mr Johnson indicated he had not seen the correspondence.
Speaking to broadcasters at Teesport, Middlesbrough, the Prime Minister added: “But what I can say is we are taking some temporary and technical measures to ensure that there are no barriers in the Irish Sea, to make sure things flow freely between GB and NI, and that’s what you would expect.
“Obviously these are matters for continuing intensive discussions with our friends.
“I’m sure with a bit of goodwill and common sense all these technical problems are eminently solvable.”
The protocol was designed by the EU and UK to avoid a hardening of the border on the island of Ireland. It achieved that by keeping Northern Ireland aligned to various EU rules, meaning checks are now required on goods arriving into the region from Great Britain.
On Thursday, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the EU is as negotiating with a partner it “simply cannot trust”.
Mr Coveney described the UK Government’s unilateral decision on the grace period as “very frustrating”.
“This is not the first time this has happened, that they (the EU) are negotiating with a partner that they simply cannot trust,” he told RTE.
The LCC represents the Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Defence Association and Red Hand Commando, which were responsible for many deaths during 30 years of conflict.
The paramilitaries said they are temporarily withdrawing their backing of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday accord amid mounting concerns about the protocol.
The LCC leadership stressed unionist opposition to the protocol should remain “peaceful and democratic”.
Its letter warns the protocol undermines the “basis on which the Combined Loyalist Military Command (CLMC) agreed their 1994 ceasefire and subsequent support for the Belfast Agreement”.
Commenting on the LCC letter, Northern Ireland’s Chief Constable Simon Byrne said he does not believe loyalists are likely to return to violence.
“Our initial assessment is that this is a political move,” he told the Northern Ireland Policing Board on Thursday.
“We don’t see the prospect of a return to protest or violence. We are prudently looking at an assessment of what that means in terms of a policing response or indeed any need to change our posture over the weeks ahead.”
Tensions have been ratcheting up in loyalist communities since the protocol came into effect at the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.
Mr Byrne has previously warned of a “febrile” atmosphere and urged people to step back from the brink of violence.
Inspection staff at ports were temporarily withdrawn from duties earlier this year in response to sinister graffiti, but they later resumed their work after police insisted there was no credible threat against them.
More menacing graffiti appeared this week in the loyalist Sandy Row area of Belfast, this time targeting Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, who has chaired the joint UK/EU committee on implementing the protocol.
Goods arriving into Northern Ireland from Great Britain have been subjected to added processes and checks since the Brexit transition period ended on December 31.
That bureaucracy is set to intensify significantly when the grace period exempting supermarkets and other retailers from those regulatory processes ends. Prior to the Government’s move, it had been due to run out at the end of March.
On Thursday, Northern Ireland’s chief vet Dr Robert Huey told Assembly members that his vets could have to conduct the same number of agri-food checks as the whole EU combined when the grace period does ultimately expire.
“I’ve spoken about this to the (European) commission on purely technical, not political, terms about ‘here is what I’m being asked to do by the Northern Ireland Protocol with my currently 12 vets, that’s not going to work’,” he told the agriculture committee.
Last week, Stormont’s DUP Agriculture Minister Gordon Lyons stopped preparatory work on building permanent Irish Sea trade checks at the region’s ports.
That move, the legality of which has been disputed by Executive colleagues, did not impact ongoing checks as those are happening at temporary port facilities.
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