Michael Gove says Brexit support package is not admission of border in Irish Sea
SENIOR British minister Michael Gove has rejected claims that a £355m government support package to cover additional import costs for the north's businesses is an acknowledgement of an Irish Sea Brexit border.
Plans for a free-to-use IT system that will cover any extra burden placed on firms shipping goods from Britain and the rest of the world were unveiled yesterday during a visit by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to Northern Ireland.
Around £155m will be spent developing new "light touch" technology to check goods moving east-to-west across the Irish Sea, while a £200m Trader Support Service will cut the importing businesses' paperwork and costs.
The service has been welcomed by business groups and most of Stormont's main parties but some unionists believe that by putting the package in place, the British government has effectively admitted that there is a new border between Britain and the north.
Ulster Unionist economy spokesman John Stewart said Prime Minister Boris Johnson's previous claim that the region's businesses could "throw customs declarations in the bin" had turned out to be "bluster".
"No matter how the government may seek to spin it, the reality is that they have allowed a regulatory border to be placed down the middle of the Irish Sea and they are now scrambling to try to undo the damage this will cause," the East Antrim MLA said .
TUV leader Jim Allister also said the package showed that "commitments from the Tories that there would be no border impeding internal UK trade were worthless".
But Mr Gove insisted Northern Ireland's economic status within the UK was not diluted by the Brexit withdrawal deal and predicted it would enable the region's firms to gain a competitive advantage.
He also voiced optimism that a trade deal with the EU would be signed off by the time the transition period ends on January 1, claiming the tone of negotiations had improved in recent weeks.
During a visit to Ulster Carpets factory in Portadown, Mr Gove rejected claims that there was now a border in the Irish Sea.
"I don't accept the argument that there's a border down the Irish Sea because Northern Ireland businesses, Northern Ireland people will continue to have totally unfettered access to the rest of the UK," he said.
"The Northern Ireland protocol doesn't change the economic or the constitutional position of Northern Ireland – it does give Northern Ireland businesses an advantage though."
He said the region's firms also had "privileged access into the European single market".
"Now, as a result of that privileged access, there are some bureaucratic processes and that's why we're spending money today, because we wanted to make sure that Northern Ireland businesses are not out of pocket, that they and workers in Northern Ireland get all the benefits of being in the best of both worlds," he said.
The minister said Britain's "desire to implement the protocol fairly" had ensured a "better tone and atmosphere to the negotiations" with the EU.
"Obviously there's still a fair amount to be done, but I'm optimistic that we'll be able to secure a negotiated outcome at the end of this year."
The Trader Support Service was welcomed by First Minister Arlene Foster, who met Mr Gove at Hillsborough Castle in the morning, and by Sinn Féin MP Chris Hazzard.
However, both said other outstanding matters around trade between the north and Britain needed to be resolved.
SDLP MLA Matthew O'Toole said funding for the new scheme "falls far short of what is needed" and repeated his party's call for the transition period to be extended.
Separately, the British government has committed a further £300m to the Peace Plus programme to support reconciliation projects across Ireland from 2021-27.