Brexit: EU officials to oversee checks at Northern Ireland ports under Irish Sea deal, Michael Gove admits

‘Grace period’ to exempt British food supplies from costly export health certificates to last only three months

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Wednesday 09 December 2020 15:12 GMT
Sammy Wilson attacks EU officials being stationed at Northern Ireland ports

EU officials will be stationed at Northern Ireland ports under a deal to minimise disruption to trade across the Irish Sea because of Brexit, Michael Gove says.

A “grace period” to exempt supermarkets supplying food from Britain from £200-per-product export health certificates will last only three months, the Cabinet Office minister also admitted.

And an agreement to allow imports of chilled meat – so “British sausages will continue to make their way to Belfast and Ballymena”, Mr Gove vowed – will run out after six months.

The details of the breakthrough in implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol sparked Labour criticism that it amounted to “a series of grace periods” only.

Bernard Jenkin, a senior Conservative MP, protested that future disputes would be “subject to the European Court of Justice” (ECJ) – a red line for many Tories.

And Sammy Wilson, a Democratic Unionist MP, protested that the EU staff “will be able to direct UK officials on the ground and, under Article 5 of the Protocol, UK officials will have to carry out their demands”.

Furthermore, the time-limited exemption for chilled meats would allow the Irish government in Dublin “to tell us where we can get our food from,” he argued.

But Mr Gove hailed the agreement for delivering his promises to ensure trade flows are not disrupted and to give Northern Ireland businesses “unfettered access” to the rest of the UK.

Significantly, the EU has agreed to waive export summary declarations on West-East trade across the Irish Sea – although there will be new checks in the opposite direction.

Mr Gove said: “This deal would keep goods flowing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in January and, indeed, provide some necessary additional flexibilities.

“It protects Northern Ireland's supermarket supplies. We heard throughout the year that traders needed time to adapt their systems, that's why we've got a grace period for supermarkets to update their procedures.

“Our agreement also prevents any disruption at the end of the transition period on the movement of chilled meats. British sausages will continue to make their way to Belfast and Ballymena in the new year.”

But he also acknowledged the agreement “allows some EU officials to be present at Northern Ireland ports as UK authorities carry out our own procedures” – saying it would be “two dozen at most”.

And he agreed the ECJ would have a remit in “a specific number of areas in Northern Ireland”, while insisting that had been made clear in last year’s withdrawal agreement and the Conservative election manifesto.

Mr Gove defended the three-month exemption for supermarkets, saying: “They requested a grace period. Originally, the Commission argued that that would be impossible, or if it did exist that it could only be a matter of weeks.

“We managed to secure three months which is sufficient time, we understand, in order to ensure that supermarkets are ready.”

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