Edwin Poots, the new leader of Northern Ireland’s largest political party, on Sunday accused the EU of treating the region as a political “plaything”, as tensions continued between the UK and Brussels over the implementation of post-Brexit trading rules.
Poots, who became leader of the Democratic Unionist party on Thursday, argued that while in the past the European Commission had put its “heart and soul” into maintaining peace within the region, the “current batch” of commissioners showed little regard for the peace process in Northern Ireland.
The leader of the DUP swept to power promising to take a tougher stance on the Northern Ireland protocol, which was agreed as part the 2019 treaty which secured Britain’s formal exit from the EU. It is designed to avoid a land border on the island of Ireland.
“The EU [is] seeking to punish the UK and as a consequence Northern Ireland is being used as a plaything”, he told the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show. “We are citizens of the United Kingdom, we were citizens of the European Union and we deserve to be treated with the same respect as everyone else.”
Poots, whose predecessor Arlene Foster was ousted in part because she was perceived as not being tough enough on the protocol, said the UK government would have “grounds” to invoke a provision, known as Article 16, to suspend part of the agreement as the “economic and societal damage” it was causing was “very evident”.
Article 16 allows either side to suspend parts of the agreement and can be triggered if either the EU or UK believes that the protocol is causing “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.
The DUP leader said that the protocol, which requires the region to follow EU customs rules for goods, requiring goods moving between Great Britain into Northern Ireland to undergo checks, had been “hugely damaging” and ought to be “ditched”.
“We have violence on our streets in Northern Ireland that hasn’t been the case for years and that’s on the back of this protocol”, he said, adding that the EU was “playing fast and loose”.
Businesses within the region have complained of higher costs and extra paperwork that come with importing and exporting. The region also faces higher costs for medicines once a grace period for that sector expires in October.
Earlier this month, in his first official visit to Northern Ireland, Lord David Frost, the British government’s lead minister on Brexit, met businesses and members of the community in Northern Ireland and discussed issues ranging from the complexity of paperwork and disruption to supply chains.
After the meeting, Frost warned that the protocol was “presenting significant challenges”, and argued that rapid solutions were needed in order to “minimise disruption to the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland”.
Responding to Poots’ criticisms, Maros Sefcovic, vice-president of the commission, said it was “committed” to the Good Friday Agreement, which in 1998 ended 30 years of violent sectarian conflict. “We are really working very closely to make sure that the protocol is transformed into an opportunity”, he told the BBC.
Sefcovic, the EU’s point person on relations with Britain, said Brussels had been “working absolutely flat out” to ensure the smooth implementation of the protocol, adding that more co-operation was needed from the UK side.
Unionists argue the protocol breaches the terms of the peace deal by altering Northern Ireland’s status within the UK, which was enshrined in the GFA.
Sefcovic said the EU was working hard to resolve protocol-related irritants ranging from barriers to the movement of guide dogs between Northern Ireland and Great Britain to issues concerning tariffs on steel, value added tax on second-hand cars, and a more generalised problem concerning food safety checks.
Yet “from the UK side we still do not have the basic answers”, Sefcovic said.
The UK government on Sunday said it remained focused on addressing the “significant challenges” created by the protocol.
Additional reporting by Javier Espinoza in Brussels