Unionists have claimed they been “screwed over” by a new regulatory border in the Irish Sea, with senior MPs hitting out at the Tory government in London over shortages of some items in foodstores, and calling for some Brexit regulations to be scrapped.
Part of the Brexit agreement between the EU and the London government is a protocol which keeps the North of Ireland within the EU’s customs union for goods. In a speech in the Westminster parliament this week, North Antrim MP Ian Paisley claimed trade in the area had been “ruined” by the protocol.
He and other unionists have been sharing photos of bare supermarket shelves to justify their claims of a Brexit “disaster”. However, several have been exposed as actually taken in England, where supply chains have also been affected by Brexit and Covid-related disruption.
One DUP councillor, Dale Pankhurst, attempted to support the claims by tweeting a photo of an English supermarket taken nine months ago – when shoppers were panic stockpiling in response to the first Covid-19 lockdown.
Some online British retailers have paused exports to the north of Ireland and other EU destinations due to uncertainty around the new customs requirements, but most have said these will resume when systems are updated.
Some supermarket chains have been affected by disruption to supply chains, namely Marks & Spencers, Asda and Sainsbury’s, while others such as Lidl and Dunnes Stores have successfully adapted.
But the DUP’s Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots was accused of scaremongering when he claimed hospitals and schools will run out of food when post-Brexit Irish Sea trade arrangements are fully implemented.
Alliance Party MP Stephen Farry described the DUP claims as “scaremongering on steroids”, while Sinn Féin’s Caoimhe Archibald said Edwin Poots and other DUP figures had “shamefully distorted” the facts on food supply.
“The DUP are cynically exploiting problems caused by lack of preparation in an onslaught against the Protocol,” she said. “This is a desperate attempt at deflection for the disastrous implications of a Brexit they championed.”
While British Direct Ruler Brandon Lewis continued to insist that there is no sea border at all, Boris Johnson said there had been “teething problems” for the new rules and that he was assured goods were flowing “effectively”.
But an emotional Mr Paisley described the comment as “an insult”.
“I must ask, what did we do to members on those benches over there to be screwed over by this protocol?” he told the Commons. “It has ruined trade in Northern Ireland and it’s an insult to our intelligence to say it’s a teething problem.”
Loyalist figure Jamie Bryson warned darkly of a “political onslaught” against the Protocol which he said “hasn’t even started yet. This is just the beginning.”
However, some unionists have welcomed the special status accorded to the north of Ireland, with the Protocol facilitating trade with both Britain and the EU and avoiding a hard border through the island of Ireland.
The contrast has led to speculation of another DUP heave against party leader Arlene Foster, who has remained relatively calm over the Brexit outcome.
SDLP MP Claire Hanna said there’s “definitely a split” in the party.
“Arlene Foster seems to be attempting to deal with the situation, with some of her colleagues, the MPs and Edwin Poots, seeking to cause maximum division and disruption,” she said.
“There is a basic contradiction and they need to decide between deflection or making the Brexit they brought here work.”