Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis on Tuesday admitted the UK government’s post-Brexit trading laws had contributed to the recent violence in the region.
In a statement to the House of Commons, Lewis described the unrest as “unacceptable”, adding that while the reasons behind it were “complex and multi-faceted”, the Northern Ireland protocol had been a factor.
“I recognise there are concerns about the implications around the Northern Ireland protocol, concerns which overlap with wider questions about national identity and political allegiance and that comes at a time of economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic,” Lewis told MPs.
“We all remember that the protocol is there and in place because of the unique circumstance of Northern Ireland. We have got to make sure it works in a good, fluid and flexible way.”
The protocol, which came into effect on January 1, was designed to avoid a hard border in the island of Ireland. However, concerns have been raised about its implementation.
Lewis added the recent unrest had also been in part been caused by a “perception” that coronavirus restrictions had not been equally enforced across communities.
His Labour shadow, Louise Haigh, accused prime minister Boris Johnson of betraying the trust of the people of Northern Ireland and urged him to clarify what steps were being taken to reduce checks within the region.
“He made promises to the people of Northern Ireland that there would be no border with Great Britain, knowing full well his Brexit deal would introduce barriers across the Irish Sea,” Haigh said.
She also urged Johnson to convene talks in Belfast and “face up to the consequences of his own actions”, adding: “He made those promises because he knew economic separation would be unacceptable to the unionist community and the growing political instability we are seeing has its roots in the loss of trust that this caused.”
Lewis said Northern Ireland had made “huge strides” since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 but added that elements of “fragility” remained as evidenced by the recent unrest. Last week’s violence left 88 police officers injured, with 18 arrests made and 15 individuals charged.
Lewis said “dialogue” and “engagement in the democratic progress” would be key to resolving the tensions, adding that he remained in constant contact with Northern Ireland party leaders and police. He also committed to “look for an appropriate time” to convene a meeting with the British-Irish intergovernmental conference.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, EU officials said “technical level” talks between the EU and UK were now occurring on an almost daily basis as both sides attempt to agree on how to fully operationalise the protocol.
But the officials cautioned much work remains to be done, with the EU seeking to ensure full compliance with the system of trading arrangements the two sides agreed as part of their Brexit divorce deal.
EU priorities in the talks include ensuring that Britain delivers on protocol commitments to construct border inspection posts and share customs data from policing the entry of goods into the single market.
People briefed on the talks said EU Brexit chief Maros Sefcovic and his UK counterpart David Frost would likely hold stocktaking talks on Thursday evening.
“We stand ready to find swift, pragmatic solutions within the framework of the protocol,” the European Commission said. “Depending on the progress of course there may be a political level meeting between vice-president Sefcovic and David Frost at some point soon.”
Christophe Hansen, one of the European parliament’s lead MEPs on Brexit, tweeted that the assembly’s committees would vote this week on ratifying the EU-UK trade deal negotiated last year.
But he added that plans for a vote by the full parliament were still “deferred” because MEPs want to see progress from the talks on how to implement the Northern Ireland protocol. “Cool heads must prevail,” he said, calling for “pragmatic yet full implementation” of the two sides’ divorce deal.