Northern Ireland protocol crisis worsens as row unfolds on Twitter

The clash between ministers over the NI protocol intensified over the weekend, with key negotiators thrashing out their differences on Twitter.

Marking the start of a big week for discussions on Northern Ireland and UK-EU relations, a dispute on Twitter between Sir David Frost, the UK’s tough-talking Brexit minister, and Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, has escalated tension over the already strained NI protocol.

Frost took to Twitter to reiterate the view that he had conceded during his Conservative Party conference speech in Manchester last week, that the EU must agree “significant change” to the Northern Ireland protocol.

The tortuously negotiated protocol is part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement settled between the EU and Boris Johnson in January 2020 that governs the unique trade and border rules in the Northern Ireland province. It seeks to avoid the need for a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The protocol has been by far the most complex piece of the Brexit conundrum.

A late-night Twitter spat

In the late-night Twitter spat, Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, wrote: “EU working seriously to resolve practical issues with implementation of protocol – so UKG (UK Government) creates a new “red line” barrier to progress, that they know EU can’t move on… are we surprised?”

“Real Q: Does UKG actually want an agreed way forward or a further breakdown in relations?”

The comments drew a rebuked response from Frost, who wrote: “1. I prefer not to do negotiations by Twitter, but since @simoncoveney has begun the process…”

Dismissing Coveney’s claims that he was making new demands, Frost continued:

“… the issue of governance and the CJEU [Court of Justice of the European Union] is not new.

“There needs to be significant change to the current situation if there is to be a positive outcome,” he added.

An important week for NI trade discussions

The row comes at the beginning of a pivotal week on discussions about managing the flow of goods between Northern Ireland, Britain and the EU.

The European Union is due to put forward a fresh set of proposals, while stopping short of the “significant change” the UK government is demanding.

The Commission accepts that, through the triggering of Article 16, the UK is likely to unilaterally suspend parts of the protocol before Christmas. The Article 16 mechanism allows either side of the agreement to act or avert trade trouble or “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties.”

Boris Johnson and David Frost have made it clear that they believe such difficulties have already been met.

The European Commission is expected to present new measures on Wednesday this week that will be designed to ease custom controls, the clearance of dairy, meat and other food products, as well as the flow of medicine to Northern Ireland from mainland UK.

The EU is also expected to map out proposals to engage more politicians and businesspeople in Northern Ireland.  

Before then, in a speech is Lisbon today to the diplomatic community, Frost is due to warn that EU proposals do not go far enough and that the EU’s scrapping of its prohibition of British sausages to resolve the protocol dispute does not meet the UK or unionists’ demands. He will say that continuous negotiation is not an option and that the UK government will have to act by using Article 16 if solutions cannot be agreed quickly.

Frost is expected to tell delegates in Lisbon that the relationship with the EU is “under strain.”

Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Coveney admitted it was undiplomatic to question the UK’s motivation in a Twitter row, but added it was a “bit rich” of the Brexit minister to be equally as accusatory, since Frost had briefed the media that the Commission’s proposals that will be announced on Wednesday would not meet the UK’s demands.

Serious questions must be asked

Current tensions, prior to protocol talks having even begun, have raised fears that negotiations will be doomed, and the UK is heading for a trade war with the EU.

Warnings have been made about the ramifications of ripping up the NI protocol and triggering Article 16.

Alan Winters of the UK Trade Policy Observatory said that serious questions must be asked of the chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost and Boris Johnson ahead of such an event.

Winters said the UK government should “stop banging the drum” and make a “sensible compromise” to end the chaos.

During Brexit negotiations, all parties agreed that protecting the 1998 Good Friday Agreement was essential. The implications ripping up the protocol would have on the Good Friday Agreement have also been raised. According to Winters, the move would be a violation of the Good Friday Agreement and, in its wake, would be a host of other political pressures and issues.

“Why did you sign it?”

In a direct attack on Johnson and Frost, Winters said: “The UK has got pretty serious obligations so far as the Good Friday Agreement is concerned.

“And these have not figured very much in the analysis over the last several years.”

“The real question” for the pair is “why did you sign it”.

“Did you not understand it? Did you have your fingers crossed behind your back!”, Winters continued.

Pointing to how stability, jobs and livelihoods depend on progress on Northern Ireland this week, Louise Haigh, Labour MP for Sheffield Heely and shadow secretary of State for Northern Ireland, shared her censure of the demands being put forward by the UK government, tweeting:

“Boris Johnson and Lord Frost negotiated every word of this deal.

“It would be a serious abdication of responsibility to block a pragmatic way forward and provoke poisonous instability.”

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a freelance journalist and contributing editor to Left Foot Forward.

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