British frustration with the EU’s refusal to move on the Northern Ireland Protocol led to its unilateral ‘solo run’ on Wednesday, which blindsided the Irish Government.
To palpable anger in Dublin, the UK government said it would unilaterally extend the three-month grace period which exempts British suppliers from providing certain paperwork when shipping food to Northern Ireland supermarkets.
The UK suggests this is merely a technical and operational necessity because the grace period is running out at the end of this month, and because a plan for supermarkets to put in place a hi-tech traceability system will not be ready on time.
The widening gulf between Dublin and London comes as loyalist paramilitary groups withdrew their support for the Good Friday Agreement. The Loyalist Communities Council (LCC) umbrella group wrote to British prime minister Boris Johnson telling him the main loyalist paramilitary groups were withdrawing support for the Belfast Agreement.
The British government's move has been blasted by Taoiseach Micheál Martin whose office said he was not told about the decision during a phone conversation with Mr Johnson 24 hours before it happened. Foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney said the UK government “could not be trusted”.
The British have said Mr Johnson outlined his concern about the trading of certain products between Britain and Northern Ireland in a telephone conversation with Taoiseach Micheál Martin earlier this week about the World Cup. However, Mr Coveney said he was not aware of Mr Johnson giving any indication of the unilateral action.
Senior EU figures have portrayed the British move as a way of seeking to bounce the EU into yielding to UK demands on how the protocol should be implemented.
The European Commission has made genuine efforts to find workable solutions to the problems surrounding the protocol, but these have been swept aside by a British solo run, they say.
However, British sources have contested those suggestions, saying EU talk that the sides were really close to a deal and that the UK merely walked away from that “does not correspond” with their experience.
“We didn't at all sense that we were close to a deal,” one source said.
It is understood that UK minister David Frost made clear to the EU and to Mr Coveney that these were temporary and limited measures, but that they are needed to create some space and time for the British on the ground for businesses in the North.
What is clear is that the botched move by the EU Commission on January 29, when it moved to trigger the Article 16 ban on imports without the consent of Dublin, has significantly impacted on relations not only in the North but between Dublin and London.
Both Dublin and London officials have made clear that the events of January 29 did have an effect important effect. “It did have the effect of making a difficult situation in Northern Ireland significantly more difficult,” one source said.
Mr Coveney said that he “strongly advised” Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis against the UK’s unilateral decision to extend the grace period for post-Brexit checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain.
If the UK could not be trusted to stick to an agreement and instead took unilateral action then the EU was left with no option but to take legal action, he told RTÉ radio’s“It’s not what we want, but it is where the UK is driving us.”