Northern Ireland’s joint heads of government are divided over the Brexit protocol in the aftermath of an EU attempt to slam on the brakes over covid vaccination supply routes.
First Minister Arlene Foster has urged the UK Government to intervene, while deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill has insisted the protocol must stay.
Ireland’s premier Micheal Martin said it had been a “mistake” by the European Commission, but rejected Mrs Foster’s claim that the protocol is unworkable.
However all three leaders criticised the EU over its short-lived move to override the protocol over export controls on coronavirus vaccines on Friday evening.
Mr Martin said it had been a mistake and that dialogue with London and Brussels would continue to “ensure lessons are learned”.
He also confirmed that the Irish Government did not have prior notice of the European Commission’s intentions.
Mrs Foster said it was an “absolutely incredible act of hostility” while Ms O’Neill said it was “clearly unwise, ill-judged and totally unnecessary”.
After invoking Article 16 to stop the unimpeded flow of vaccines from the European bloc into Northern Ireland, the EU later backtracked, following condemnation from London, Dublin and Belfast.
In a statement late on Friday, the European Commission said it was “not triggering the safeguard clause” to ensure the protocol was “unaffected” after widespread condemnation of its move as part of its export controls on coronavirus vaccines.
It is understood that a compromise will see vaccines crossing between the Republic and Northern Ireland being recorded in Dublin, but will not be at risk of being blocked.
Northern Ireland’s health minister Robin Swann spoke to the UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock on Saturday to seek reassurance on vaccine supplies.
“It’s essential confidence and trust is rebuilt after yesterday’s actions by the EU,” he tweeted.
“We need certainty that essential vaccine supplies will always be able to travel freely to NI, both now and in the future.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “The Health Secretary and minister of health for Northern Ireland had a constructive discussion on the supply of Covid-19 vaccines.”
Mrs Foster has pressed Prime Minister Boris Johnson to act, describing the protocol as “unworkable” and saying it should be replaced,
“It’s absolutely disgraceful, and I have to say the Prime Minister now needs to act very quickly to deal with the real trade flows that are being disrupted between Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday.
“The protocol is unworkable, let’s be very clear about that, and we need to see it replaced because otherwise there is going to be real difficulties here in Northern Ireland.”
Ulster Unionist Party leader Steve Aiken also urged London to intervene.
“Friday was a tipping point. The EU cynically and deliberately used Northern Ireland in an attempt to cover up their vaccine omnishambles with a political one,” he said.
“It’s long past time for the UK Government to step in to protect Northern Ireland’s interests.”
But Ms O’Neill has said the protocol must stay, and that both the EU and British Government “need to honour and implement their agreements”.
She said the EU’s actions have “regrettably caused political harm”.
“The Irish Protocol, while imperfect, must be preserved,” she said.
“The protocol exists as a solution to avoid a hard border on the island, thereby enabling the all-island economy and Good Friday Agreement to be protected.
“Our citizens need timely access to lifesaving vaccines, not trade disputes between the EU and the British government.
“The Withdrawal Agreement and Irish Protocol were negotiated and agreed by the EU and British Government, and the onus is on them to honour and implement both.”
The protocol has already proved unpopular with unionists in Northern Ireland, who complain of a border down the Irish Sea.
Earlier on Friday, there were calls for Government intervention amid claims that Brexit red tape could hinder the movement of military equipment within the UK.
New Irish Sea shipping arrangements mean the armed forces need to give 15 days’ notice, complete customs declarations and even inform Nato in order to take materials from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, according to the Ulster Unionist Party.
UUP MLA Doug Beattie, a decorated Army veteran, said the restrictions were a consequence of the protocol, which governs the movement of goods across the Irish Sea since the Brexit transition period ended.
Mrs Foster said a restriction on the movement of military equipment was among “hundreds of problems” created by the protocol.
Under the terms of the protocol, Northern Ireland remains in the single market for goods and continues to apply EU customs rules at its ports and airports.