Government Didn't Expect Brexit To Be So Disruptive For Northern Ireland, David Frost Admits
The government underestimated the impact Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol would have on businesses trying to send goods across the Irish Sea, David Frost has said.
Frost, the Cabinet Office minister who led the UK's trade talks with the European Union, on Monday told the European Security Committee that post-Brexit disruption to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland had been greater than what the government had expected.
"They probably have a bigger chilling effect than we thought on GB businesses wanting to move goods into Northern Ireland," he said about new border checks, adding: "This is one of the problems that is underlying some of the unrest and political developments we are seeing in Northern Ireland."
Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed by UK and EU negotiators, the province continues to follow swathes of EU rules in order to avoid a contentious hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
However, it has resulted in an array of costly and time-consuming paperwork for businesses in Great Britain sending goods to Northern Ireland — particularly for those moving food.
The UK and EU are currently discussing ways of potentially simplfying the Northern Ireland Protocol to make it easier for affected businesses to adhere too.
Frost offered a relatively downbeat assessment of those talks, however, telling MPs on the committee that while there had been a"bit of momentum" in the negotiations, they had not been "hugely productive" and the government would "have to see how far we can take it".
Frost over the weekend raised eyebrows in Brussels by writing in The Mail that the EU's approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol was "purist" and "made no sense".
He today once again shot down the suggestion that the UK should align with the EU's rules in order to eliminate checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
"From the EU point of view the easiest solution to any border problem is we should just operate the same rules as they do. That doesn't work for us and isn't going to be the solution," Frost said.
He also warned that the UK was "not very keen" on aligning with EU rules even on a temporary basis, arguing it would make it harder for the government to sign trade deals with other countries.The UK and EU are under growing pressure to find solutions for the Northern Ireland Protocol before the summer months when loyalist marching season gets underway in the province.
Loyalist frustation with the Protocol and its effect on Northern Ireland's relationship with the rest of the UK was one of several factors that contributed to violence on the streets of the province in recent weeks. The unrest led to dozens of police officers being injured and was widely descibed as some of the worst Northern Ireland has seen in decades.
Frost, who visited Northern Ireland last week, told MPs that while he did not want to put a formal deadline on the government's talks with the EU, there was a "real life timeline" in Northern Ireland with a potentially "turbulent" summer approaching.
He said the "degree of unsettledness" in the province had turned out to be "stronger" than the government had expected.
"My assessment of the situation is is businesses and a good proportion of society in Northern Ireland feel anxious about the effect of the trade boundary between GB and Northern Ireland.
"They are seeing effects from it and are having to divert supplies to some extent. They are concerned about where this might take us," Frost told MPs.
He said blame "to some extent" lies with the EU's controversial move in January to impose a ban on vaccine exports by suspending the Protocol, which the bloc quickly backtracked on.