Northern Ireland would have faced more empty food shelves if the Government had not intervened on Brexit grace periods, Brandon Lewis has said.
The Northern Ireland Secretary defended the UK’s move to unilaterally extend an exemption period applying to the movement of GB supermarket goods into the region, insisting efforts to agree extensions with the EU had run out of time.
Mr Lewis also made clear that the Government move was not an attempt to undermine the protocol, or a prelude to a bid to ditch it entirely.
He instead characterised the extension as an effort to ensure the protocal ultimately worked effectively.
“There was a timing issue, if we hadn’t moved to take some decisions this way there was a very real risk that actually what we’ve had in a few weeks would have been back to the issues with empty shelves,” he said.
Some supermarkets in Northern Ireland witnessed depleted shelves in the early weeks of the protocol’s operation in January amid disruption to Irish Sea trade.
“If we hadn’t put these kind of easements, grace periods extensions in place in the next couple of weeks, I think there was a very real (risk), because the way the supply lines work and the timeline was, that we’d have ended up with another problem with food supplies and other supplies coming into Northern Ireland which further would have undermined the protocol.
“So actually these actions are about ensuring that the protocol’s integrity is able to be there and to work for people in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Lewis insisted the actions were “temporary” as the Government tried to phase-in the full operation of the protocol.
“I don’t see our actions this week as an escalation and just a very sensible and pragmatic approach and something we’ve been talking to the EU about for some weeks and we’d hoped that we would have got an agreement with the EU on them before now.”
He added: “By doing what we’ve done this week it highlights that we are trying to find a pragmatic way to deliver on the protocol, it is absolutely within our obligations to the protocol.”
The Conservative MP also questioned the Irish Government’s criticism of the move, highlighting that Ireland had also applied some red tape easements to help traders adjust to the new post-Brexit operating environment.
“I was a bit disappointed with the response I saw from the Irish government because they themselves you know temporarily waived some requirements recently without an end date,” he said.
“So you know this is a common practice in terms of getting a good pragmatic sensible approach in terms of how you deliver things.”
Mr Lewis was also asked about the move by loyalist paramilitary groups to withdraw support for the Good Friday Agreement.
He said the EU’s ill-fated attempt to suspend elements of the protocol amid its row over Covid-19 vaccine supply had significantly escalated tensions among loyalist communities in Northern Ireland.
Mr Lewis said the Government’s move on grace periods was an attempt to dial down those tensions and address associated unionist concerns that the Belfast Agreement was being undermined.
He defended a recent meeting between his officials and the Loyalist Communities Council umbrella group, which represents paramilitary groupings. He insisted the LCC was not in itself a paramilitary group.
“I’ve got no problem with my officials meeting people across society,” he said.
“I think we’ve got to get away from this sometimes what I’ve got to say I think is an unhelpful and inaccurate representation.
“If officials and people were not talking – and actually Northern Ireland politicians as well – to people across society, we would have never got an agreement like the Good Friday Agreement.”
He added: “If they’re (particular groups) taking a path that is against violence and towards and for democracy, I think it is important that they’re properly engaged across communities.”