The British government has signalled it may take unilateral action to give supermarkets and suppliers more time to adapt to post-Brexit trading rules with Northern Ireland.
“We are taking forward a series of further temporary operational steps which reflect the simple reality that there is more time needed to adapt and implement new requirements as we continue our discussions with the EU,” he said.
The announcement will sound alarm bells in Dublin and Brussels that Downing Street may attempt to tweak the Northern Ireland protocol, the part of the Brexit deal that keeps Northern Ireland a part of the EU’s single market for goods.
Boris Johnson, speaking after Lewis, told MPs Northern Ireland’s position within the UK internal market was “rock-solid and guaranteed”. He said the government would reinforce that with operational “easings” to protect food supplies and other areas, pending further discussions with the EU.
Checks on goods arriving from Great Britain have disrupted supply chains and triggered protests from Northern Ireland’s unionist parties, which say the protocol undermines the region’s status in the UK.
EU and UK leaders have held talks to ameliorate disruption but failed to break the impasse. Last week, both sides pledged to reach a “pragmatic solution”, with the UK agreeing to develop new plans to respond to problems with supermarket supplies.
The UK has asked for a two-year extension to all grace periods for Irish Sea border checks including those on food, parcels, plants and medicines, but so far Brussels has balked.
It is unclear if the British government will unilaterally extend grace periods. Lewis’s statement to the Commons made no mention of the EU agreement but later said he would hold an informal meeting with the European commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič.
Grace periods have delayed full application of checks. The first of those periods is to expire at the end of March, which will trigger more stringent checks on food and parcels and probably louder protests from unionists.
There was no immediate response from the EU commission.
Neale Richmond, a member of the Irish parliament and a European affairs spokesman for the ruling Fine Gael party, gave a cool response. “Rarely is anything unilateral a good idea,” he tweeted. “Engagement between HMG and EU ongoing, focus should be there with regards the post-Brexit protocol.”
Disruption to supermarket and parcel deliveries and the continued refusal of some high-street chains to deliver in Northern Ireland have heightened tensions among loyalists and unionist parties who have vowed a campaign of peaceful resistance.
The DUP agriculture minister, Gordon Lyons, has halted work on permanent post-Brexit border control posts in Northern Ireland. Existing temporary border posts continue to operate.