Stop Brexit ‘blame game’, Northern Ireland business leaders tell UK and EU

Plea comes as Joe Biden urged to send special envoy amid concern Good Friday agreement being ‘wilfully boycotted’

Last modified on Tue 8 Jun 2021 02.01 EDT

Northern Irish businesses have called on UK and EU leaders to stop the Brexit “blame game” and deliver urgent solutions to end growing tensions over the checks on food and goods crossing the Irish Sea into the region.

Their plea comes as a US political committee involving five former US ambassadors says Joe Biden should appoint a special presidential envoy to Northern Ireland amid concern that the Good Friday agreement is being “wilfully boycotted in protest over the protocol”.

Businesses including retailers, manufacturers and farmers called for an end to the dispute between London and Brussels on the eve of a crunch joint UK and EU committee meeting between Brexit minister Lord Frost and the European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič in London which will also be attended online by representatives of the 27 EU member states.

“We cannot afford another missed opportunity at the joint committee as we saw earlier this year,” said the Northern Ireland business Brexit working group (NIBBWG) in reference to talks in March, which collapsed when Frost unilaterally suspended most of the checks mandated under the Northern Ireland protocol.

“We need to see that not only are we being heard and understood, but that both the UK and EU are willing to work together to deal with the impact of the protocol,” said the group, which represents 16 trade bodies including the Federation of Small Businesses, Logistics UK, Manufacturing NI and the Ulster Farmers’ Union.

Their joint statement came as US congressman James Walsh, co-chair of the ad hoc committee to protect the Good Friday agreement (GFA), urged Joe Biden to send a presidential envoy to the region to help advance peace efforts. “We are increasingly concerned that the GFA is becoming collateral damage as a result of Brexit and the ongoing disputes over the Northern Ireland protocol,” he said.

Aodhán Connolly, head of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium and one of the lead representatives of the NIBBWG, said there was “a growing frustration” in Northern Ireland over the war of words between the remote power bases of London and Brussels.

“There’s a blame game happening on both sides that we don’t want any part of. What we want is the solution. Politics is getting in the way of what should be, for all intents and purposes, a technical process,” he said.

“Time is ticking away. We are very grateful for all the talking that is going on and the engagement with communities here, but we want to see the fruits of that, proof that we are being listened to and that they are willing to deliver solutions,” said Connolly.

The protocol has been hugely controversial in Northern Ireland, contributing to violence over Easter and fissures in the Democratic Unionist party, which is officially campaigning to have it scrapped.

On Monday officials in Brussels said they were preparing to make compromises on the protocol including modifications for a time-limited veterinary deal but warned that “patience is wearing thin” with the UK.

Šefčovič has warned the UK not to unilaterally extend the grace period for the protocol beyond its expiry at the end of this month. Writing in Tuesday’s edition of the Telegraph, the Brexit commissioner said: “If the UK takes further unilateral action … the EU will not be shy in reacting swiftly, firmly and resolutely to ensure that the UK abides by its international law obligations.”

The two sides are trying to reach agreement on about 30 issues relating to checks on animals, goods and medicines, and have reached a broad consensus on eight areas including the tagging of livestock, free pet passports for guide dogs and movement of second cars between GB and NI.

An EU official said Brussels was also “working to solve” an unforeseen issue relating to the availability of medicines.

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