Boris Johnson has vowed he will not hesitate to unilaterally tear up the Brexit deal to trigger safety measures of the Northern Ireland Protocol if "serious problems" continue to persist in supplying food products to supermarkets in Northern Ireland.
Although earlier he dismissed as “teething problems” the ongoing food supply disruption facing British traders caused by the introduction of a customs border down the Irish Sea under the terms of the withdrawal agreement signed with the European Union, he was called out on the issue during the Prime Minister's Questions on Thursday.
Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson urged direct government intervention to deal with the food supply chaos, reported The Independent.
“The prime minister promised us that Northern Ireland will continue to have unfettered access to the UK internal market. And yet in my constituency, consumers are facing empty supermarket shelves. They can't get parcels delivered from Great Britain… Small businesses cannot bring spare parts or raw materials into Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Steel importers are facing tariffs and we have many other problems, all caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol,” said Donaldson.
While Great Britain is no longer in the customs union with the European Union, Northern Ireland, while no longer legally in the EU Customs Union, remains an entry point into it, creating a de facto customs border down the Irish Sea.
Accordingly, food products entering Northern Ireland (NI) from Great Britain require professional certification and are subject to checks and controls at ports.
...and not just supermarkets in Northern Ireland. This was Sainsbury's at the weekend and produce manager said it was #Brexit supply chain issues. After 40 years of progress who in their right mind would choose to impose impediments to trade and supply in this day and age? pic.twitter.com/tP12pMzRRo— Katy Jon Went (@katyjon) January 13, 2021
While there is also a three month "grace period" allowing supermarkets to refrain currently from complying with all the EU's usual certification requirements, the movement of food products from along the GB - NI route has been facing challenging disruptions.
"So what I and the people of Northern Ireland need to know from the Prime Minister, as leader of the United Kingdom, is what his government is going to do to address this, if he will consider invoking Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol to resolve these issues?” asked Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the Commons that consumers continued to face ‘difficulties in supermarkets’.
“…It's not the case that all the supermarket shelves are fully stocked and we met yesterday with some of the main supply chain people in Northern Ireland. They talk of ongoing difficulties in bringing goods in from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. These are issues that need to be resolved," warned the DUP Westminster leader.
In response, the UK Prime Minister attempted to alleviate concerns, underscoring that goods were “flowing effectively and in normal volumes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“Yes of course there are teething problems. What I can say is that if there are problems that we believe are disproportionate then we will have no hesitation in invoking Article 16,” said Johnson.
Article 16 of the agreement’s Northern Ireland Protocol would enable the UK to take “appropriate safeguard measures” without consulting Brussels if the deal causes “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.
Supermarkets in Northern Ireland - pics all taken this evening. pic.twitter.com/wOZacyX5dx— Andy (@antisyzygy) January 8, 2021
Invoking Article 16, however, would represent a risk of EU retaliation, as the protocol contains provisions that enable Brussels to take “rebalancing measures” which could involve either further Brexit paperwork or tariffs.
Tory MP Simon Hoare warned Boris Johnson, writes the outlet, that the move would inflict “huge damage” on the Good Friday Agreement.
Food Supply Challenges
Earlier, a retail industry representative assured MPs that supply problems for Norther Ireland supermarkets were being overcome, while the issues that had arisen were the "inevitable consequence" of the last-ditch signing of the Brexit trade deal.
Andrew Opie, director of the British Retail Consortium, was cited by the BBC as saying difficulties might re-emerge after the end of the three-month grace period on trade, and in case new certification requirements are introduced in April.
3/ This was the shelves in supermarkets lately in East Belfast area. Those that pushed for an Irish Sea Border have helped SF in their quest to ruin Northern Ireland economy. #InvokeArticle16 ⛔ pic.twitter.com/jjm158LK9u— John Brennan (@JohnBrennanReal) January 8, 2021
Chief executives of Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Iceland, Co-Op and Marks & Spencer – the country’s major supermarkets - have also written to UK Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove to call for the government’s "urgent intervention" to prevent disruption to food supplies to NI.
"We accept clear progress needs to be made by 1 April 2021 and are happy to discuss our issues and solutions directly with EU officials. However, until then we need an assurance that the current process based on a trusted trader scheme... doesn't change until a workable replacement is agreed," says the letter.
In response, a Downing Street spokesperson said that the grace period for supermarkets and their suppliers was “working well”.
“Goods continue to flow effectively between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and we are working intensively with industry as new requirements come in," said t he spokesperson.