Michael Gove today accused the European Union of inflaming community tensions in Northern Ireland after its ditched plans to stop vaccine exports to the UK.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office said the actions taken by the European Commission on Friday last week had ‘provoked anger’ and ‘trust has been eroded’.
He warned that ‘damage has been done’ and the bloc needs to take ‘urgent action’ to repair the situation.
The European Commission’s threat to stop vaccines being sent to the UK would have placed restrictions on jabs moving into Northern Ireland, effectively undermining the hard won free-flowing Irish border.
Mr Gove’s intervention came after Brexit checks on animal and food products arriving at ports in Northern Ireland were suspended over threatening loyalist behaviour.
Import inspections at Belfast and Larne were stopped ‘with immediate effect’ last night as Stormont’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) assessed risk to workers at the sites.
The decision came after a local council decided to remove 12 of its staff at Larne port due to ‘an upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour in recent weeks’ amid growing discontent over the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol.
Michael Gove today told the EU ‘damage has been done’ in Northern Ireland after its ditched threat to block vaccine exports
Ursula von der Leyen announced on Friday that the EU intended to stop vaccines being moved into Northern Ireland but swiftly backtracked after a ferocious backlash
The protocol, agreed by the EU and the UK under the terms of the Brexit divorce deal, requires regulatory and customs checks to be carried out at ports to ensure Northern Ireland continues to comply with the bloc’s red tape on goods.
The two sides agreed to the measures in order to avoid a return of checkpoints on the politically sensitive land border.
Many unionists and loyalists are against the protocol because they believe it has created an economic barrier between the region and the rest of the UK, undermining the constitutional integrity of the Union.
There has been growing opposition to the protocol since it was rolled-out on January 1 but it has been the subject of even greater tensions in recent days after the EU backtracked on a threat to suspend part of the agreement using Article 16 as part of a rumbling row with the UK over vaccines.
The botched move by the EU would have struck at the heart of the protocol’s main function – to facilitate a free-flowing Irish border – by placing restrictions on vaccines moving into Northern Ireland from the bloc.
The EU swiftly rowed back on its plans after a ferocious backlash but Mr Gove said this afternoon that the bloc’s actions had ‘provoked anger and concern across all parties’.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Gove said: ‘On Friday afternoon the European Commission, without prior consultation, published a regulation to enable restrictions on the export of vaccines from the EU.
‘That regulation also invoked Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, barring the free movement of medicines from Ireland into Northern Ireland.
‘It is important to be clear about what was proposed. Not only plans to stop vaccines being delivered through legally binding contracts at the height of a pandemic but also and critically a unilateral suspension of the painstakingly designed and carefully negotiated provisions of the protocol which the EU has always maintained was critical to safeguarding the gains of the Northern Ireland peace process.
‘Article 16 exists for good reasons but it is meant to be invoked only after notification, only after all other options are exhausted and in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
‘None of these conditions were met. Worse still, neither the UK Government representing the people of Northern Ireland nor the Irish Government, an EU member, were informed.
‘The Commission’s move has provoked anger and concern across all parties and throughout civil society in Northern Ireland as well as international condemnation.’
Mr Gove welcomed the fact that the plans were withdrawn but he said: ‘Trust has been eroded, damage has been done and urgent action is therefore needed.
Animal and food product inspections at Northern Ireland’s Belfast and Larne ports were stopped ‘with immediate effect’ last night over safety fears for staff
The decision came after a local council agreed to remove 12 of its staff at Larne port due to ‘an upsurge in sinister and menacing behaviour in recent weeks’.
‘Peace, progress and strong community relations in Northern Ireland have been hard won and in recent days we have seen an increase in community tension and as was reported last night port staff in Belfast and Larne have been kept away from work following concerns for their safety.’
He added: ‘Fixing problems on the ground now requires us all to work calmly. The EU needs to work with us at speed and with determination to resolve a series of outstanding issues with the protocol.’
Meanwhile, the EU also faced criticism from Downing Street today after Ursula von der Leyen accused Britain of compromising on coronavirus vaccine safety and claimed the bloc’s slower approval process was the ‘right decision’.
Number 10 hit back and said experts at the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had been ‘very clear that no corners were cut, no stones were left unturned’ when they decided to give the green light to a number of jabs.
The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman said ‘the public should be confident of the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines’.