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Customs officials check freight trucks as they disembark from a ferry at the Northern Irish port of Larne. File photo from January 1, 2021.
Customs officials check freight trucks as they disembark from a ferry at the Northern Irish port of LarneImage: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
PoliticsUnited Kingdom

EU: Halting Northern Ireland-UK checks an 'absolute breach'

February 3, 2022

Ireland's EU commissioner says the halting of border checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea would break the UK's Brexit deal with the bloc, and international law.


The European Union's financial services commissioner Mairead McGuinness on Thursday said that an order by the Northern Irish government to stop post-Brexit checks on some products would be "an absolute breach of international law."

Months of talks between London and Brussels on the checks have so far failed to find a resolution, with the EU insisting that the separation deal with the UK cannot be rewritten. 

What is the EU saying?

McGuinness, who is Ireland's representative on the EU's executive, said the halting of checks on agricultural and food products would create "uncertainty, instability, and unpredictability."

"The news of this stopping of inspections — if that is actually what happens — is really, really unhelpful in us finding a way forward," McGuinness told national broadcaster RTE. 

"It's an absolute breach of international law. That is a major problem because we need to be able to trust each other."

"We have reminded our UK counterparts from the very outset when they resigned, if you like, or pulled away from implementing the agreement, that they actually have proposed and signed up to that."

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and EU Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic are due to hold further talks on Thursday.

Ahead of that meeting, the Commission said Sefcovic would tell Truss that the checks were an essential part of their Brexit divorce deal.

Why are there any checks?

The checks were designed to avoid contentious customs inspections on the border between the Irish Republic and the North.

In exchange for Northern Ireland remaining linked to the European Single Market by an open land border, the UK agreed that there would instead be checks on some goods going to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

The aim was to preserve the integrity of the European Single Market by maintaining its external limit while also honoring the Belfast Agreement, which states that an open border must be maintained on the island of Ireland. The 1998 Belfast Agreement is the cornerstone of the Northern Irish peace process, which brought to an end decades of violence.

Northern Ireland's Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots on Wednesday ordered an end to all post-Brexit checks on agri-food goods entering the province from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Poots, a member of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), cited legal advice that the checks — which effectively create a customs border in the Irish Sea — should not have been given regional government approval.

Checks were still said to be continuing at Belfast Port on Thursday morning.

N. Ireland marks 50 years since Bloody Sunday

The DUP opposes the Northern Ireland Protocol which mandates the checks. It has also spoken of a betrayal by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who repeatedly promised prior to becoming prime minister that no such checks would ever to be introduced, only to agree to them with the EU once he no longer relied on DUP support to prop up his Conservative government in Parliament.

The arrangement — which Northern Ireland's British Unionists say undermines the province's place in the UK — has led to red tape and supply problems for some businesses. However, it has also been touted as good for Northern Ireland, giving firms there free or largely-free access to both the UK and EU markets.

UK says changes needed

The UK government — which has previously said it wants to rewrite the agreement it struck with Brussels in 2020 — on Thursday said the decision to stop the checks was a matter for the province's devolved executive. A spokesman sought to highlight the upcoming talks and the UK's attempts to revise the Northern Ireland Protocol.

"We have been consistently clear that there are significant problems with the Protocol which urgently need fixing, which is why we are in intensive talks with the EU to find solutions," a British government spokesman said. 

Britain has threatened to use an emergency break clause to suspend parts of the legally binding Brexit agreement — something that could trigger EU retaliation and jeopardize other aspects of the Brexit accord.

rc/msh (AFP, Reuters, dpa, AP)

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