LONDON (AFP) – Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Forster on Saturday (Jan 30) urged Britain to remove a post-Brexit protocol with the European Union after it became the focus of a diplomatic row over Covid-19 vaccines.
Brussels was forced to row back on threats it made late on Friday to invoke Article 16 of the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol and stop the free flow of vaccines over the Irish border.
“The protocol is unworkable, let’s be very clear about that, and we need to see it replaced because otherwise there is going to be real difficulties here in Northern Ireland,” Ms Foster told BBC radio.
The leader of the loyalist Democratic Unionist Party has long been critical of the protocol, which allows Northern Ireland to follow EU Customs rules and avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“It’s absolutely disgraceful, and I have to say the Prime Minister (Boris Johnson) now needs to act very quickly to deal with the real trade flows that are being disrupted between Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” she added.
A furious row over shortages of a Covid-19 vaccine developed by the British-Swedish drugs group AstraZeneca threatened to boil over on Friday just weeks after London and Brussels sealed a Brexit trade agreement.
However, the bloc backed down from invoking the Article to monitor and, in some cases, block exports of vaccines produced in EU plants.
“The Commission will ensure that the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol is unaffected,” the EU Commissioner said in a statement.
Mr Johnson had told EU chief Ursula von der Leyen of his “grave concerns about the potential impact” the European bloc’s decision might have.
Mr Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, told The Times newspaper that Brussels needed to step back from the escalating row over vaccines.
“We are facing an extraordinarily serious crisis which is creating a lot of suffering, which is causing a lot of deaths in the UK, in France, in Germany, everywhere,” he said.
“I believe that we must face this crisis with responsibility, certainly not with the spirit of one upmanship or unhealthy competition,” Mr Barnier added.
The EU has still has plans to go ahead with a broader vaccine export ban, which could impact on supplies of the Pfizer-Biontech jab in Britain.
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