EU invokes Article 16, introducing controls on vaccine exports to Northern Ireland
First Minister Arlene Foster has denounced an EU move to halt the operation of an element of Brexit's Northern Ireland Protocol as part of the bloc's attempts to control the export of vaccinations from the EU.
Arlene Foster branded the EU's triggering of Article 16 of the protocol to stop the unfettered flow of vaccines from the EU into Northern Ireland as an "incredible act of hostility".
Under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, goods should be able to move freely between the EU and Northern Ireland as the north remains in the single market for goods and still operates under EU customs rules.
The EU has triggered Article 16 of the protocol to place controls on the movement in respect of vaccines. The move, announced as part of wider EU controls on vaccine export, will frustrate any effort to use Northern Ireland as a back door to bring vaccines into Britain.
"By triggering Article 16 in this manner, the European Union has once again shown it is prepared to use Northern Ireland when it suits their interests but in the most despicable manner - over the provision of a vaccine which is designed to save lives," said Mrs Foster.
"At the first opportunity the EU has placed a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over the supply chain of the coronavirus vaccine.
"With the European Union using Article 16 in such an aggressive and most shameful way, it is now time for our Government to step up. I will be urging the Prime Minister to act and use robust measures including Article 16 to advance the interests of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom."
Responding to the EU's triggering of Article 16 of the Protocol, Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken criticised Brandon Lewis for not having done the same in response to disruption to GB-NI trade since the transition period ended.
"The Secretary of State Brandon Lewis should be embarrassed and ashamed by the behaviour of the Government and the Northern Ireland Office following the unilateral decision of the EU to activate Article 16 to put controls on exports of vaccines from its territory," said Mr Aiken.
"Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, our Armed Forces can't bring their equipment into Northern Ireland without permission, eels can't leave, the movement of family pets has been restricted, products have disappeared from our shelves and GB companies are stopping trade with Northern Ireland.
"For weeks now we have been told that Article 16 cannot be invoked accompanied by all sorts of feeble excuses for not doing so. The EU has unilaterally blown that concept out of the water by invoking Article 16.
"They have done it at the drop of a hat. Activating Article 16 is clearly not the nuclear option as portrayed by Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Fein. We were told time and time again that it couldn't be done. Despite EU claims that they always acted in the best interests of Northern Ireland, when push came to shove, the EU looked after itself.
"The EU is unilaterally invoking Article 16 to protect its own interests and it's about time the UK Government did the same instead of being lead actors in a ridiculous charade that there is no border in the Irish Sea and that Article 16 can't be invoked."