The statement made by Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, in the House of Commons on 2 February 2021.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) for the chance to update the House on recent developments on the Northern Ireland protocol.
On Friday afternoon, the European Commission, without prior consultation, published a regulation to enable restrictions on the export of vaccines from the EU. That regulation also invoked article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, barring the free movement of medicines from Ireland into Northern Ireland.
It is important to be clear about what was proposed: not only plans to stop vaccines being delivered through legally binding contracts, at the height of a pandemic, but critically, a unilateral suspension of the painstakingly designed and carefully negotiated provisions of the protocol, which the EU has always maintained was critical to safeguarding the gains of the Northern Ireland peace process.
Article 16 exists for good reasons, but it is meant to be invoked only after notification and only after all other options are exhausted, and in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. None of those conditions was met. Worse still, neither the UK Government, representing the people of Northern Ireland, nor the Irish Government, an EU member, were informed. The Commission’s move has provoked anger and concern across all the parties and throughout civil society in Northern Ireland, as well as international condemnation.
Following the reaction, the Commission did withdraw its invocation of article 16 and subsequently clarified, in conversations with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, that it would not interfere with vaccine supplies to Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his robust and sensitive intervention, and also to the Taoiseach, the Northern Ireland Executive and Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič for moving quickly to resolve the situation on Friday evening, but trust has been eroded, damage has been done and urgent action is therefore needed.
Peace, progress and strong community relations in Northern Ireland have been hard won, but in recent days we have seen an increase in community tension and, as was reported last night, port staff in Belfast and Larne have been kept away from work following concerns for their safety. The decision was taken by Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister, Edwin Poots, and the local council. My right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary is engaging closely with the police and authorities on this issue, and of course, the safety and security of staff are the absolute priority.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Edwin Poots for his dedicated work. He is, coincidentally, stepping down from his post for health reasons this week, and I am sure all of us in the House would want to send him every good wish.
Fixing problems on the ground now requires us all to work calmly. The EU needs to work with us, at speed and with determination, to resolve a series of outstanding issues with the protocol. I am grateful to Vice-President Šefčovič for his understanding of the need to make progress to see these problems resolved and to ensure that the protocol does what it was designed to do: avoid disruption to everyday lives while protecting Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market and our customs territory.
I am also grateful to the First Minister of Northern Ireland and her Executive colleagues for their close working with the UK Government and their shared determination to resolve these issues. We will work over coming days to fix the difficulties on the ground, preserve the gains of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and, of course, uphold Northern Ireland’s place as an integral part of our United Kingdom.