Post-Brexit trading arrangements in Northern Ireland are “not working” yet but “can be made to work”, Michael Gove has insisted.
The Cabinet Office minister admitted “disruptions and difficulties” are being faced in the nation by businesses and admitted “we are very far away from resolving all those problems”.
He piled pressure on Brussels ahead of a meeting with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic in London on Thursday to discuss the issues.
Mr Gove said he believed the issues could be resolved within the existing “Northern Ireland Protocol”, without needing to trigger the Article 16 procedure to effectively override it.
The Protocol was designed to prevent a hard border but has resulted in additional checks for goods crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
Mr Gove last week wrote to Mr Sefcovic calling for an extension of grace periods to allow companies to adapt to the new arrangements until 2023.
But on Monday he was highly critical of the EU Commission’s decision to trigger Article 16 temporarily – later revoked – over vaccine supplies.
He called it a moment “when trust was eroded, when damage was done”, and when Ireland and other EU member states were “ridden roughshod over”.
“Pandora’s Box has been opened and that is concerning… who knows what Trojan horses will come out,” he told a Commons committee on Monday.
“If people put a particular type of integrationist theology ahead of the interests of the people of Northern Ireland they are not serving the cause of peace and progress in Northern Ireland, and that is my principal and overriding concern.
“Even though the EU said they would not be invoking Article 16 on this occasion, they haven’t given us a binding undertaking never to do so.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself threatened last week to employ the same device, telling MPs: “We will do everything we need to do, whether legislatively or indeed by invoking Article 16 of the Protocol to ensure there is no barrier down the Irish Sea.”
Calls from the DUP and other unionist parties to scrap the whole Protocol have intensified in recent weeks, following evidence of some disruption to trade arriving at Irish Sea ports from Great Britain.
Unionists and loyalists believe Northern Ireland’s position within the UK has been undermined by the Protocol, which was incorporated into the Withdrawal Agreement to ensure a free-flowing Irish land border post-Brexit.
It means Northern Ireland follows the EU’s rules on goods while the rest of the UK is not similarly obliged.
It requires extra pre-delivery red tape and inspections at Northern Ireland’s ports which initially reduced consumer choice of some food supplies and threatened parcel deliveries.
But senior Cabinet Office official Jessica Glover told MPs that trade flows from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are “back to normal”.
Ms Glover, director general of the Transition Task Force in the Cabinet Office, told the Commons European Scrutiny Committee: “GB to NI trade flows are back to normal and indeed slightly higher now than they were in the equivalent week last year.
“So we are not seeing disruptions in trade flows on that route which is again a testimony to the really good work that many businesses I know have done to get themselves ready for those arrangements.”