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EU to propose easing checks on British trade to N. Ireland

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Signs reading 'No Irish Sea border' and 'Ulster is British, no internal UK Border' are seen affixed to a lamp post at the Port of Larne, Northern Ireland, March 6, 2021. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo

The European Commission put to Britain on Wednesday (13 October) a package of measures to ease the transit of goods to Northern Ireland, while stopping short of the overhaul London is demanding of post-Brexit trading rules for the province, write Philip Blenkinsop, Sarah Young and Guy Faulconbridge in London, Padraic Halpin in Dublin.

The EU executive's measures are designed to ease customs controls, such as the clearance of meat, dairy and other food products and the flow of medicines to the British province from the UK mainland.

However, it will not open up for renegotiation the protocol governing Northern Ireland's unique trading position, leaving Brussels and London on a potential collision course.

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Maros Sefcovic, the commission vice-president in charge of EU-UK relations, will present the plans to EU countries and to members of the European Parliament on Wednesday afternoon before a news conference scheduled for 6:30 p.m. (1630 GMT).

The commission will also set out plans to engage more with people in Northern Ireland.

Oliver Dowden, the co-chairman of Britain's ruling Conservative Party, said the British government would engage fully and constructively with the European Union on the proposals, adding that the steps he had read about so far were "welcome".

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"We will look at them and engage properly with them," he told Sky News, while also saying it was important there was "fundamental change" to the protocol.

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin told Newstalk radio station that the EU had listened to legitimate concerns about the protocol and was in "solution mode" and the British government had a responsibility to be in that mode too.

"It takes two to tango," he said.

The proposals could enable supermarkets to supply Northern Irish stores with sausages and other chilled meat products from Britain that are banned from entry into the European Union - and so in theory into Northern Ireland.

While remaining part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland has stayed in the EU's single market for goods, meaning its exports to the rest of the bloc face no customs checks, tariffs or paperwork.

Sefcovic has said the arrangement allows Northern Irish businesses to enjoy the best of both worlds. However, the result is an effective customs border in the Irish Sea, disturbing trade from Britain to Northern Ireland and angering the province's pro-British unionists.

Under the commission's plans, British sausages, for example, would be allowed into Northern Ireland as long as they were solely intended for Northern Irish consumers.

"That's our proposal. We will put it on the table. If... this is rejected, then indeed we have a problem," Sefcovic said in comments last week.

British Brexit Minister David Frost said in a speech on Tuesday that London would be ready to discuss the proposals "whatever they say", but also demanded a new "forward-looking" protocol, one without oversight from European judges.

The EU has said it cannot see how a body other than the EU's top court could rule on the EU single market.

Ireland

Irish government sets out biggest ever investment plan

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The Irish government has announced the largest national development plan in the history of the state as it unveiled spending proposals for the next decade, writes the BBC.

The plan envisages a total investment of €165 billion (£141 million) between now and 2030 on various capital projects such as housing and transport infrastructure.

Taoiseach (Irish PM) Micheál Martin hailed it as "unprecedented in scale".

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He said the plan will "drive the next phase of our post-pandemic recovery and will create thousands of jobs".

The investment will include extra money for cross-border projects, with capital funding for the government's Shared Island initiative to be "at least doubled" to €1bn (£853m) until 2030.

Mr Martin said the planned spending of €3.5bn on north-south infrastructure was a "significant increase" in investment on infrastructure projects.

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He described the investment as "a pragmatic approach on our side".

Those projects include the Irish government funding the Narrow Water Bridge between counties Louth and Down, the Ulster Canal and the A5 road as well as more money to be spent on greenways, higher education, biodiversity and industrial parks.

However, opposition parties have questioned the government's costings and timescales, with the Labour Party dismissing the plan as a "work of fiction".

Outlining the coalition government's investment priorities, the taoiseach said they would "respond to the housing crisis and tackle the climate emergency" at the same time as reforming public services.

He announced a target to build 300,000 new homes by the end of 2030, which would include 90,000 social homes, 36,000 affordable purchase homes and 18,000 cost rental homes.

He also said there would be a swift reform of the planning system to address "the planning and legal delays which bedevil infrastructure and housing projects in Ireland".

The investment will including extra money for cross-border projects, with capital funding for the government's Shared Island initiative to be "at least doubled" to €1bn (£853m) until 2030.

Housing protester
The new plan contains a target to build 300,000 new homes by the end of 2030

The investment proposals were presented as the revised "National Development Plan" - an updated version of a capital spending programme first outlined in 2018.

The revised version is more costly and ambitious, as it involves almost €50bn (£42m) of extra spending that had been envisaged three years ago.

The new plan includes a €35bn (£30m) investment package for Ireland's transport system, including proposals for new light rail systems and 1,000 km of new and improved walking and cycling infrastructure.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan, who is both the minister for the environment and minister for transport, said it would create a "cleaner, greener, connected Ireland".

"It means that for every euro we invest in new road infrastructure we're investing twice as much in new public transport," Mr Ryan added.

However, the Labour Party's spokesperson on finance and public expenditure, Ged Nash, called the revised National Development Plan "a work of fiction".

"The glossy updated plan is an expensive reheat of the 2018 version," he said.

"How can we take a plan to develop public transport links like Metro Link and the Dart extension to towns like Drogheda seriously if no costings or firm timelines are published?" Mr Nash asked.

"If government had the confidence that the vast number of projects mentioned in the plan would be delivered, then they should publish clear costings and the indicative delivery dates."

Sinn Féin's housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin said the plan was "very disappointing news for housing".

He claimed the actual extra spending on social and affordable housing in 2022 "will be minimal".

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Brexit

Britain will threaten to scrap some Northern Ireland Brexit terms

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Britain threatened on Monday (4 October) to dispense with some of the terms of its agreement overseeing post-Brexit trade with Northern Ireland, saying they have become too damaging to retain, write Kylie MacLellan and Elizabeth Piper, Reuters.

In a speech to the governing Conservative Party conference in the northern English city of Manchester, Brexit Minister David Frost (pictured) will urge the EU to help find an agreed solution to the problems with the deal, according to a party statement.

"He will warn that 'tinkering at the edges' will not fix the fundamental problems with the Protocol," the statement said.

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The British government has been urging the bloc for months to renegotiate the terms of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, which governs trade between Britain and its province, which borders EU member Ireland.

The EU has said it will not renegotiate the terms.

The Northern Ireland protocol was part of the Brexit divorce settlement that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson negotiated with the EU. It has created a de facto customs border between Britain and Northern Ireland to safeguard the free flow of trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

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Britain has threatened to trigger Article 16 of the agreement, which allows either side to unilaterally seek to dispense with some of the terms if they are proving unexpectedly harmful.

According to excerpts from his speech, Frost will say that the threshold for the use of Article 16 Safeguards has been met.

Brussels is due to respond in full shortly to a "command paper" put forward by London in July calling for fundamental changes to the protocol.

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Northern Ireland

‘I do not need any political victory here, I want to find a solution’ - Šefčovič

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European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič made his first visit to Northern Ireland this week. At the end of two days of intense meetings with business, civil society and local politicians he laid out his approach at a press conference at the end of his visit: “I do not need any political victory here, I want to find a solution, which would represent a win-win for all, first and foremost for the people of Northern Ireland.”

“My major takeaway was engagement, focusing on solving problems and continuation of our contacts,” said Šefčovič. “We are ready to walk the extra mile to look for solutions and we hope that we can do it in a calm and constructive atmosphere.”

He said that over the past two days he had heard a lot about SPS, access to goods, medicines in particular, and involvement of Northern Irish stakeholders. However, he added that people were not dwelling on scrapping the oversight of the European Court of Justice, a sine qua non of enjoying the free movement of goods. 

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“I haven't heard from anyone who thought it would be a good idea to miss out on the chance to be part of the biggest single market in the world cost free, because the people here know that, for example, Norway pay more than €3 billion for being in the market for each financial financial perspective.” He urged politicians to focus on the everyday concerns of people and the interests of business. 

Šefčovič underlined the EU’s unwavering commitment to the people of Northern Ireland, but called for honesty: “The European Union cannot be blamed for the costs of Brexit. Brexit made it necessary to find an agreement on how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. After years of long, complex negotiations, we found a solution with the UK in the form of the Protocol.”

“Removing the Protocol will not solve any issues. It is the best solution we found with the UK to address the unique situation of the island of Ireland, and the challenges created by the type of Brexit that the current UK government chose. Failing to apply the Protocol will not make problems disappear, but simply take away the tools to solve them.”

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On the UK’s decision to unilaterally extend grace periods, he said: “The EU has demonstrated its goodwill. Earlier this week, we reacted in a cool and calm manner to the UK's statement regarding the continuation of existing grace periods.

“We did this in order to create a constructive atmosphere for our ongoing discussions.

In conclusion, let me stress one important thing: our overarching objective is to establish a positive and stable relationship with the United Kingdom.

“After five years in which clarity and stability have often been lacking, we now have a solid basis on which to cooperate – the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.”

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