Sinn Fein table petition recalling Assembly to ‘express support’ for proposals
New proposals issued by the European Union that would see an 80% reduction on checks on Irish Sea trade have received a mixed reaction from the Stormont parties.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson claimed the intervention by the EU falls “far short of the fundamental change needed”.
In response, the reaction of Sinn Fein and the SDLP was to welcome the potential changes outlined by the EU vice president Maros Sefcovic.
Michelle O’Neill said the plans were a “good mark of progress” but added it was “up to others” to engage with the process.
She said her party have tabled a petition at Stormont to have the Assembly to “reiterate support for the protocol” following the announcement.
“The Protocol is an international treaty between the EU and the British government which recognises the special status of this island and stops a hard border in Ireland,” she said.
“It protects our peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. It safeguards jobs and the all-island economy.
“It is supported by the majority of political parties and the majority of MLAs in the Assembly.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood described the moves by the trading bloc as “significant”, while Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie said there remained a “long way to go” in negotiations and said he was “disappointed” by what he heard from the EU official.
The protocol was negotiated to avoid a hard border with Ireland, by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the EU's single market for goods.
But unionists have been pressuring for it to be scrapped because of the trade barriers it has created on products crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain.
Mr Sefcovic said the proposals to change the Northern Ireland Protocol are a "direct and genuine" response to concerns raised.
He unveiled a series of measures aimed at addressing issues around customs paperwork and the movement of agri-food goods and medicines between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
He said: "We have listened to, engaged with and heard Northern Irish stakeholders, from political leaders to businesses and a cross-section of civic society.
"Our proposed solutions are a direct and genuine response to concerns they had raised."
The measures would see an 80% reduction in checks envisaged for retail agri-food products arriving in the region from Great Britain.
The proposed changes to the contentious post-Brexit trading arrangements would also remove the prospect of certain British produce, including Cumberland sausages, being banned from export to Northern Ireland.
In response TUV leader Jim Allister tweeted that the “EU proposals utterly fail the sovereignty test”.
Sir Jeffrey said he was looking ahead at “intensive focused” negotiations and described the proposals as the EU’s “opening pitch”.
"It is vital this new round of negotiations does not become another missed opportunity to make fundamental change and to replace the Protocol. Short-term fixes will not solve the problems that have beset the United Kingdom internal market,” he said.
"These proposals clearly fall a long way short of being the basis of a sustainable solution and are presented within the framework of a Protocol that has failed. The proposals in the Government Command paper, in our view, are the best direction of travel to start creating sustainable arrangements for Northern Ireland.”
While there are flexibilities around trading checks, the proposals contained in four separate papers published by the bloc on Wednesday evening do not offer any concession on a key UK Government demand, the removal of the oversight role for the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
UK Brexit minister Lord Frost has made clear the removal of the ECJ's oversight function in policing the protocol is a red line for the Government if a compromise deal is to be struck.
Under the terms of the protocol, which was agreed by the UK and EU as part of the 2020 Withdrawal Agreement, the ECJ would be the final arbitrator in any future trade dispute between the two parties on the operation of the protocol.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the issue should not prevent progress: “No one, save perhaps for Jim Allister, has raised the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice as an issue because its remit is so confined to the operation of European Internal Market law that it poses no threat to prosperity here.
"Jeopardising our access to the European Single Market on the basis of nativist fuelled rhetoric about European courts would be a serious mistake.
“There is now a clear landing zone that will address the protocol challenges, allow us to maximise the opportunities and, most importantly, expend political energy dealing with the crisis in our health service, our crumbling schools estate and managing the pandemic. We need to grasp that opportunity.”
The Alliance Party’s Stephen Farry argued the proposals “provide certainty and stability”.
“We welcome these proposals and look forward to engaging on the details. We hope they can form the basis for agreement between the UK and EU to address the practical issues around the Protocol in a pragmatic way,” the north Down MP said.
“Short of the UK returning to the Customs Union and Single Market, the Protocol is not going to be scrapped. Opponents of it now have the opportunity to climbdown from unrealistic and undeliverable demands and to provide much need stability and certainty, both for the business community and the political structures.”
The UUP’s Mr Beattie said: “We were told the Protocol negotiations could not be reopened, but we have now proven otherwise. This has been achieved through negotiation, not threats; through engagement not disengagement.
"The fact that the EU recognises that the Protocol isn`t working and needs substantial change is a positive development.
“However, I am genuinely disappointed by what I heard from European Commission Vice-President Maros Šefčovič and the supporting non-papers. Expectations were raised, but the proposals do not match them.
“The EU proposals can only be a starting point and in that we accept good faith. The UK Government has provided a way forward in its Command Paper and that must be a central part of any future and substantive negotiations from this point onwards."
The proposals from the EU were also welcomed by business groups in Northern Ireland, including Retail NI.
"This moves the situation forward and hopefully to a long-term solution which gives our members greater stability in trading with GB suppliers and wholesalers,” they said.
“There is much to recommend in the EU proposals and is clear that they are listening to the concerns of the local business community. We will take time to examine them and consult with our members before we give a considered final view”
“A deal is possible if the political will is there, and I would be hopeful that progress toward that can now be made.”