The British government has been accused once again of displaying “extreme bad faith”, this time over its unilateral extension of grace periods in the Irish Protocol of Brexit.
Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill said it had helped “up the ante and create even more uncertainty” around the process of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union
The London government earlier this week extended an exemption period applying to new rules on the movement of certain foods from Britain into the north of Ireland, claiming efforts to reach agreement with the EU had run out of time.
It was followed with a similar unilateral action to extend the grace periods for parcels before the application of new regulations. A restriction on importing plants potted in potentially unsafe soil was also lifted.
As a result, the EU is set to launch an international legal action and also delay the European Parliament’s ratification of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. A failure to ratify the deal would result in the collapse of relationships between Britain and the EU and the potential return of a remilitarised border through Ireland.
Dublin’s Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney admitted the EU was negotiating with a country it “simply cannot trust”. He described Wednesday’s extension of grace periods by six months as “very frustrating”.
“This is not the first time this has happened, that they are negotiating with a partner that they simply cannot trust,” he said.
“That is why the EU is now looking at legal options and legal actions which effectively means a much more formalised and rigid negotiation process as opposed to a process of partnership where you try to solve problems together, so this is really unwelcome.”
Ms O’Neill said the British government had gone on a “solo run” rather than using the proper channels to resolve issues around the protocol.
“I think that the British government have again acted in bad faith and they have demonstrated by their very deed that they are untrustworthy, that they’re not reliable, that they’re not true to their word when it comes to a negotiation,” she said.
“That’s form which the British government have demonstrated time and time again. In this case I believe they’re on the wrong side of public opinion and they’re clearly on the wrong side of international law.”
The move follows the refusal of the DUP Minister for Agriculture at Stormont to allow the construction of the facilities necessary for the implementation of the new regulations. They are due to be put in place by the middle of this year.
Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance Party have heavily criticised the move as a stunt, insisting the DUP cannot act unilaterally on issues considered controversial under Stormont’s rules.
However, DUP leader Arlene Foster has said the matter can only be decided in court, and rejected the suggestion that the Minister could be overruled by the wider Stormont Executive on the issue.
Ms O’Neill insisted the announcement had no effect without the required Executive approval, and that there had been no formal proposal to obtain it.
“The Executive’s position remains that it’s our duty to implement the protocol. It’s clear that any move to change that position would require an Executive decision,” she said.
“The agriculture minister has yet to bring a proposal to the Executive to change the status quo. And if he does so then clearly we will engage in that.
“But as things stand, the protocol’s here to stay. That’s been rehearsed now repeatedly by the British Government and the EU side and what we need to get on with now is actually providing stability and certainty to our local businesses, to be looking at how the protocol can be made simpler where it can, where we can achieve flexibilities where we can, and that’s where all efforts should be.”
Ms O’Neill added: “I am yet to understand if anything has happened apart from an instruction being given by a minister. I don’t believe that any action has changed in terms of the current workings of what’s happening at the ports.”