There have been conflicting signals over how Britain intends to implement the special status for the north of Ireland in the wake of Brexit.
While Sinn Fein has said Britain has confirmed plans to install Brexit-linked checkpoints at three seaports, chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has expressed concern that London has still not yet “laid out its approach” on how it will honour its overall commitments on the North.
Talks between Britain and the EU about their future relationship are once again stumbling toward the brink, with few signs of progress being made ahead of a key deadline next month.
Just one more round of talks remains before politicians meet in June to decide if it’s worth carrying on. British prime minister Boris Johnson has threatened to walk away if insufficient progress has been made by then.
If he follows through on that threat, Britain could end its post-Brexit transition period on December 31st without a free-trade deal, leaving the Six Counties in limbo.
However, Sinn Fein’s Declan Kearney, a Junior Minister in the Stormont Executive Office, has said London has confirmed to him that it will put in place three control posts for goods crossing the Irish Sea. At a minimum, the posts will be required to handle checks on live animals and goods of animal origin.
At one point, before last year’s general election, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that no new posts would ever be created, as they would not be needed.
“There’s no question of there being checks on goods going NI/GB or GB/NI,” Johnson said in December. He also told businesses that they could throw any customs forms “in the bin”.
However, Mr Kearney said that Britain would be providing advice and funding for three physical posts at ports in the Six Counties and that they had agreed they need to start as soon as possible”.’
Belfast, Larne in County Antrim and Warrenpoint in County Down are the three ports expected to see changes.
The move has raised unionist fears of a ‘border in the Irish Sea’, something bitterly opposed by them during long years of Brexit negotiations. The compromise plan arose from Johnson’s insistence that the north of Ireland, against its wishes, must leave the EU Single Market and Customs Union alongside Britain.
Under the terms of the deal, the area of Ireland under British jurisdiction will continue to follow EU trade rules and customs procedures. The nuanced policy avoids the need for militarised infrastructure along Britain’s border through Ireland.
But an “Irish Sea border” is now “a certainty”, the Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken declared.
“It is unforgivable that we have ended up here,” he moaned. “For all the big talk and bluster, Northern Ireland will now have to deal with border control posts at our ports and airports.”
A British government spokesperson played down the development. He said it had “always been clear that there will be requirements for live animals and agri-food, building on what already happens at ports like Larne and Belfast”.