Michael Gove: Grace periods of the Northern Ireland Protocol need to be extended

British Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove

Trust has been eroded and “damage” done by the EU’s actions which risked restricting the free flow of Covid-19 vaccine across the Irish border, Michael Gove has said.

The Cabinet Office minister told the Commons: “Trust has been eroded, damage has been done and urgent action is therefore needed.

“Peace, progress and strong community relations in Northern Ireland have been hard won and in recent days we’ve seen an increase in community tension, and, as was reported last night, port staff in Belfast and Larne have been kept away from work following concerns for their safety.”

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Mr Gove said grace periods over the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol need to be extended.

Mr Gove said: “The problem needs to be addressed both in the short and in the medium to long term.

“In the short-term, there are a number of issues which I would not describe as teething problems, they are significant issues which bear on the lives of people in Northern Ireland which do need to be resolved.

“We do need to make sure that grace periods are extended, we do need to make sure that supermarkets and other traders can continue, as they are at the moment, to be able to supply consumers with the goods that they need.

“There are a number of very specific issues and they extend, as I mentioned earlier, to everything from pet transport to the provision of plants and seeds to gardens in Northern Ireland.

“The daily life of our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland does need to be protected and we must deal with all of these questions.”

DUP Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market must be restored and the Protocol is “preventing that from happening”.

He said: “The DUP opposed this Protocol from the outset because we recognised that it would cause societal, economic problems for Northern Ireland, for businesses and consumers and would lead to a significant diversion of trade, as has been evident in its first month of operation.

“Fundamentally, this protocol upsets the very delicate balance of relationships that were provided for under the Belfast Agreement.

“There is no Unionist supporting this Protocol and therefore what we need is not tinkering around the edges but a recognition that Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market must be restored, and this Protocol is preventing that from happening.”

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Mr Gove said: “We will continue to work with him and his colleagues in order to address these issues and, of course, he is right, if necessary Article 16 is there, it can be invoked, but what we want to do is to make sure that in the days ahead what we do is make a practical, beneficial difference to his constituents and to others in Northern Ireland.”

Mr Gove added said he will be meeting the Vice-President of the European Commission on Wednesday.

He added that everyone must work “calmly” to fix problems on the ground.

He told the Commons: “The EU needs to work with us at speed and with determination to resolve a series of outstanding issues with the protocol.”

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh said the EU’s conduct on Friday was a “serious mistake”.

Ms Haigh told MPs: “The European Commission’s actions on Friday night were a serious mistake, of that there can be absolutely no doubt, and I very much welcome the Chancellor’s response.

“But they must not be used as an excuse to go back to square one and undermine the Protocol with all the damage and instability that would cause.”

On staff being withdrawn from ports due to threats to their safety, Ms Haigh added: “This is totally unacceptable and we all have a responsibility to dial down our rhetoric and to ensure that people in Northern Ireland are safe.”

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