Arlene Foster has branded the European Commission’s reaction to the UK move to delay full implementation of new Irish trading arrangements as “hysterical”.
The Government last week unilaterally extended grace periods limiting bureaucracy linked to the Northern Ireland Protocol until October. They had been due to expire at the end of March.
The UK also temporarily lifted the protocol’s ban on plants potted in soil in Great Britain from entering Northern Ireland.
I think there has been a bit of a hysterical reaction actually to some very small movesArlene Foster
The European Commission is preparing to take legal action against the Government, accusing it of breaching the terms of the protocol, which governs trade to Northern Ireland post-Brexit.
Northern Ireland First Minister Mrs Foster expressed confidence the Government would defend any legal action brought by the commission.
“As I understand it from the Secretary of State (Brandon Lewis) last week, the Attorney General has indicated that the small moves that were made by the United Kingdom Government are legal and therefore any legal action that will be taken I’m sure will be fought,” she said.
“I hope that doesn’t end up being the case. I think there has been a bit of a hysterical reaction actually to some very small moves.
“You know the position of my party. We believe that we need to see the protocol replaced because it’s the architecture of the protocol which is causing all of these difficulties.”
Mrs Foster said she did not detect a willingness from the Commission to engage with the Government to resolve issues related to the protocol.
“I don’t see any evidence of any negotiations ongoing at this present moment in time. I see a lot of megaphone diplomacy actually,” she said.
“It would be really good if there were some listening ears for a change, in relation to the damage that is happening here in Northern Ireland, from the European Union, and there was a real and tangible engagement in relation to the problems that we have.”
Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill called for an end to political wrangling over the protocol.
Sinn Fein vice president Ms O’Neill said the issues needed to be resolved through the joint UK/EU committee that has responsibility for the implementation of the post-Brexit Irish Sea trading arrangements.
“What needs to happen here is that we need to see clarity for the business community, we don’t need to see more wrangling. We need the joint committee to meet, we need an agreed way forward,” she said.
“That’s in the best interest of people here.”
The ministers were asked about the ongoing discord over the protocol on a visit to a vaccination centre on the outskirts of Belfast.
The protocol is a post-Brexit arrangement designed to keep the Irish border open by ensuring Northern Ireland continues to follow the EU’s trading rules.
It achieves that by keeping Northern Ireland aligned to various EU rules, requiring checks on goods arriving into the region from Great Britain.
The DUP has vowed to overthrow it over fears it damages the integrity of the UK internal market and Northern Ireland’s place in it.
Last week the Government unilaterally extended grace periods that currently limit regulatory checks on imports of agri-food retail goods and customs declarations on GB parcels sent to the region.
It also moved to lift a prohibition on imports of GB soil to Northern Ireland.