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‘Hard to see’ how Northern Ireland Protocol can remain sustainable, Brexit minister tells MPs

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It is “hard to see” how the Northern Ireland Protocol can remain sustainable in its current form, the Brexit minister has told MPs.

Lord Frost said the UK government has not “made a secret of the fact that we find it hard to see how, as currently operated, important elements of the Protocol are sustainable”.

A row over the Protocol, a key part of the Brexit deal struck between London and Brussels designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, has soured ties between the two sides in recent months and provoked protests in Northern Ireland.

Lord Frost
Image: Lord Frost said the ‘basic problem’ was the ‘chilling effect on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland’

As part of the arrangement, Northern Ireland remains under some EU rules and there are checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Lord Frost told MPs on the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that the UK was “considering all our options”.

“There is a real world timetable to things that needs to be taken into account when we do that,” he continued.

“That’s where we are at the moment, we are actively considering the options to deal with a situation that is hard to see as sustainable.”

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Lord Frost would not be drawn on a suggestion from Edwin Poots, the outgoing leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, that he had been given a personal assurance from the government there would be significant changes to the Protocol.

“I can’t comment on private conversations and accounts of them,” he said.

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EU allies not happy over NI border dispute

Lord Frost told the committee the “basic problem” was the “chilling effect on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland is pretty strong”.

“Until we began implementing the Protocol nobody could quite know that,” he claimed.

Lord Frost urged the EU to adopt more “pragmatism”, adding: “If their approach is simply to say ‘you must just implement the EU customs code as if this were any other external frontier of the EU’ then we obviously have a problem.

“There has to be more pragmatism and reasonableness than that about goods that never leave the UK customs territory.”

He said progress was being made in some areas, in particular on extending the grace period on chilled meats such as sausages and mince, which expires at the end of the month.

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Foreign secretary hits out at EU over NI Protocol

“Both sides are thinking very actively about that,” Lord Frost said.

“I wouldn’t want to leave the impression that nothing is happening. Quite a lot is happening, in one or two areas there is engagement, in other areas it’s more difficult.”

Boris Johnson told Sky News earlier this month he is willing to “do whatever it takes” to tackle the issues caused by the Protocol.

Speaking to political editor Beth Rigby after talks with EU leaders at the G7 summit in Cornwall, the prime minister claimed that some within the EU “misunderstand that the UK is a single country and a single territory”.

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‘We will not hesitate to invoke Article 16’

“I think they just need to get that into their heads,” he added.

Mr Johnson also reiterated that he is prepared to invoke Article 16 of the Protocol.

That clause is intended to be used when the Protocol is unexpectedly leading to serious “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.

It allows either the UK or the EU to act unilaterally to avoid those difficulties.

The PM has said the current implementation of the Protocol is having a “damaging impact” on the people of Northern Ireland.