As the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Boris Johnson paid a visit to the region today. This comes amid heightened tensions regarding the post-Brexit arrangement on the island.
Boris Johnson has held “frank” discussions with Northern Irish lawmakers over a controversial protocol in the Brexit Deal while visiting the devolved region.
The British Prime Minister’s visit to Northern Ireland comes shortly before the centenary of Ireland’s partition and the creation of the province in May but he did not meet with the leadership of Sinn Fein – the second largest party in Stormont.
Johnson visited a mass COVID-19 vaccination centre in the Co Fermanagh constituency of first minister Arlene Foster where she called on him to “stand up for Northern Ireland” and remove the “intolerable” Northern Ireland protocol, which has led to heightened tensions in the island recently.
The protocol establishes the trading regime that governs the Irish Sea since the UK withdrew from the European Union last year.
In order to ensure consistency with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement – which established an end to violence in Northern Ireland – and avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, the protocol keeps the region under certain EU Customs Union regulations.
After the meeting, Mrs Foster described the PM as being in “listening mode” and “alive to the issues”.
She said that the protocol, which is intended to retain the peaceful status quo, did not protect “the Belfast Agreement and its successor agreements” but has instead “created societal division and economic harm”.
While speaking to the PM, Mrs Foster highlighted a school in Fermanagh which was unable to import trees from England. This is allegedly because of the bureaucracy over the transport of soil across the effective customs border down the Irish sea.
According to a spokesman for the PM, Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill, was invited to join discussions during Johnson’s visit. However, the staunchly nationalist group did not take part.
Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster talks during a television interview outside the Stormont Parliament building in Belfast, Northern Ireland, December 30, 2020
O’Neill snubbed the PM’s visit to Belfast after her own request for a political meeting with her and Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald was rejected.
Sinn Fein MP John Finucane rejected the nationalist party’s involvement with what he called a “day out for unionism” after Downing Street’s rejection of a “professional, grown-up engagement” relating to issues such as the protocol.
However, this has seen customs declarations on goods going into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, such as checks on some products. Disruptions to trade have emerged as a result, seeing some firms finding it difficult to manoeuvre processes and administrations.
It has also caused frustration with Unionists who oppose arrangement, claiming that it undermines Northern Ireland as a part of the UK’s internal market.
Nationalist groups in the UK oppose scrapping the protocol and claim that the ongoing trade issues can be revised to accommodate a better situation for all parties involved.
UK government ministers have unilaterally extended the “grace period”, which allows for the avoidance of customs checks for food and parcels going from GB to NI. The EU initially permitted this to continue until 1 April but it has now been extended by Westminster until 1 October.
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