Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden calls EU touring barriers 'absurd'

As part of its Brexit agreement last year, Britain agreed to checks on some goods moving between British-ruled Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom.

That let the land border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland remain open with no checks. But the authorities in Northern Ireland complain that it has led to difficulty bringing in goods from other parts of the United Kingdom.

According to a report by the BBC, Britain is asking for an extension until 2023 of a grace period on checks on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, to soften the impact of Brexit.

“From an Irish perspective we want there to be some flexibility here if it’s possible to do that,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told national broadcaster RTE.

Trade across the land border in Ireland was the most contentious issue of Britain’s five-year Brexit negotiations. Ultimately, London agreed that Northern Ireland would remain in the EU single market and customs territory when the rest of the United Kingdom left on 1 January this year.

That means no checks are required on goods moving across the Irish land border, but they are needed on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and England, Scotland or Wales.

British supermarkets selling into Northern Ireland now have a three-month grace period to adapt their systems for customs checks. But some Northern Irish outlets have already had shortages of fresh goods usually imported from Britain, and fear the situation could worsen.

Many pro-British unionists in Northern Ireland oppose the new trade barriers introduced with rest of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland’s devolved government temporarily suspended some inspections at the ports of Larne and Belfast late on Monday. The EU also told its officials there not to come to work because of serious concerns about their safety, caused by a rise in “sinister and menacing behaviour” in recent weeks, including the appearance of graffiti describing port staff as “targets”.

Tension was increased last week when, driven by concerns about European COVID-19 vaccine supplies, the European Commission invoked emergency powers to announce it would check vaccines crossing the land border into Northern Ireland.

The Commission quickly withdrew the idea after an uproar from Dublin, Belfast and London, but the blunder fuelled the British argument that the Northern Ireland protocol should be adjusted.

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