Brexit: Brandon Lewis calls for no tariffs on internal trade
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Meanwhile Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has said the recent announcement by loyalist paramilitary groups that they were temporarily suspending support for the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) indicated the risk rising tensions posed. Northern Ireland has been a key sticking point in the Brexit debate and just one month after the United Kingdom quit, the European Commission briefly threatened to impose emergency controls on vaccines crossing the Irish land border.
Though the EU swiftly backtracked, the issue remains highly contentious, especially since the UK last month unilaterally extended a grace period for checks on food going from Britain to Northern Ireland – which effectively stayed in the EU’s single market and customs union under the divorce deal to avoid a hard border with Ireland, prompting Brussels to initiate legal proceedings.
A senior pro-British loyalist claimed yesterday the landmark 1998 peace agreement was under threat and a “Pandora’s box” of protest and political crisis would be opened unless the EU agrees to significant changes to the Brexit deal.
The GFA ended three decades of violence between mostly nationalists fighting for a united Ireland and unionists, or loyalists, who want Northern Ireland to stay a part of the United Kingdom.
The deal guaranteed an open Irish land border to help safeguard peace, free trade and travel on the island – but unionist critics including First Minister Arlene Foster are angry because they believe it has instead resulted in a border down the Irish Sea.
Mr Lewis said: “If the unionist community feel that the Protocol is breaching the Good Friday agreement and moving away from the spirit of it, then we’re in quite a dangerous place in terms of stability of not just the executive but the north-south institutions.”
Referring to the decision of the Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) – which represents the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and Red Hand Commando (RHC) – to withdraw their support for the GFA, Mr Lewis added: “I don’t agree with that, I think it would be a mistake, but it does underline the sense of tension.
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“We have to recognise there is that tension there.”
Mr Lewis said Britain had to take unilateral action to extend grace periods, otherwise shops would have run out of goods in Northern Ireland.
He added: “If we hadn’t, if we’d have had another set of empty shelves this week. The fallout from that in the unionist community means the Protocol would, I think, have been fatally flawed.”
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Referring to the EU’s fleeting ban on vaccine exports crossing the Irish border, Mr Lewis stressed: “We’re still dealing with the fallout from that.”
Irish nationalists Sinn Fein accused Mr Lewis of hypocrisy and said his comments demonstrated a failure of the “rigorous impartiality” required by the Good Friday Agreement.
Sinn Fein Member of Parliament Chris Hazzard said in a statement: “This is the same British government who have signed up to the Protocol with the EU and have committed to its implementation.”
Speaking earlier this month, Mrs Foster said: “Relationships are not in a very positive place at this present moment in time”, in reference to the stability of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive.”
She told RTE: “I think the Irish Government and the European Union need to take some responsibility for that because they have turned their face against listening to the unionist community in Northern Ireland. I think that is a mistake.”
She insisted she was still dedicated to making devolution work, stressing: “We will just have to work through the problems that are there.”
DUP leader Mrs Foster also defended Boris Johnson’s decision to extend the grace period.
She explained: “It was very clear to me that the European Union was not going to move in the appropriate timeframe to deal with real and tangible dangers to our ports and to the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”
Businesspeople she had spoken all agreed “it was the right thing to do because they needed the action at the beginning of March so that it did not impact on goods coming across the Irish Sea at the end of March”.
Mrs Foster added: “The protocol is the consequence of the Irish Government and Irish nationalism misrepresenting the Belfast Agreement.
“I really regret that because what we have now as a consequence of that is that the cross-community element
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