Gove heads to Brussels to thrash out deal on post-Brexit Northern Ireland checks

Michael Gove will meet the European commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, in Brussels to thrash out a deal to minimise checks on goods and food entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

But sources say the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol is unlikely to be delayed despite strong demands from local business and farming leaders.

There is “little scope” for phasing in of the protocol said a source but progress has been good on agreeing easements that could minimise the impact of the checks.

Ahead of his meeting with Gove on Monday, Šefčovič said the UK-EU joint committee, which was set up to implement January’s withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol was “working hard to make sure it is fully operational as of 1 January 2021”.

Although a separate strand of talks to the trade negotiations, the questions over the movement of food from GB to NI was dragged into the Brexit discussions in September with Boris Johnson claiming the EU were threatening a food “blockade” down the Irish sea.

He used this to justify the introduction of controversial Brexit clauses into the internal market bill which would give the government unilateral powers to disapply the withdrawal agreement.

Former Theresa May Europe adviser Raoul Ruparel said the incendiary clauses were deployed to create leverage in the trade talks, designed to demonstrate to the EU the negative consequences of a no deal scenario.

Last week it emerged that four in 10 food producers in GB were planning to pause or reduce supply of produce to Northern Ireland because of the checks following similar warnings from Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer supermarkets.

The joint committee remains one of the most opaque elements of the Brexit deal with little information made public about their workings or the content of the meetings.

Monday’s meeting was made public only at 8am, with a UK government announcement that said: “chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster will meet Vice-President Šefčovič today in Brussels to discuss issues related to their work as co-chairs of the Withdrawal agreement joint committee.”

According to reports the UK government is prepared to drop the part 5 Brexit clauses from the internal market bill which has already been defeated in the House of Lords if “long term and legally sound” solutions are found to minimise the controls on trade across the Irish sea.

Sources told RTE’s Europe editor Tony Connelly that “the clauses would be dropped as part of a virtuous sequence of events, beginning with the conclusion of a Free Trade Agreement, followed by a swiftly announced meeting of the EU UK joint committee, which has been negotiating the most difficult aspects of implementing the protocol”.

The bill returns to the House of Commons today with the controversial clauses expected to remain in place unless there is a trade deal.

A second piece of legislation, the taxation bill previously known as the finance bill, will go to a vote on Wednesday and is also expected to include clauses with implications for the Northern Ireland protocol.

Both bills would breach the international Brexit treaty signed by the UK and the EU in January.