An EU triggering of a trade war in the Irish Sea border dispute would be a political bid to weaken Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, a Stormont minister has claimed.

DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots was responding to suggestions that the EU could axe the Brexit trade deal if the UK suspends the Northern Ireland Protocol.

On Tuesday, Irish deputy premier Leo Varadkar said EU retaliatory action should be expected if London unilaterally activates Article 16 of the protocol to suspend post-Brexit checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

He said the Irish Government is reactivating no-deal contingency planning in preparation for a potential unravelling of the Brexit deal.

Covid testing in schools
Irish deputy premier Leo Varadkar said EU retaliatory action should be expected if London unilaterally activates Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol (Brian Lawless/PA)

Talks between London and Brussels over the contentious protocol remain deadlocked and there is growing speculation that the UK is poised to trigger Article 16 later this month.

Mr Poots, who is responsible for overseeing new Brexit checks on goods arriving from Great Britain, said he has instructed his officials to make preparations for that scenario – saying there is a “significant chance” of it happening and that it needs to happen.

“Europe has not moved and not moved quickly enough and not moved far enough in terms of making a real tangible difference to the livelihoods of the businesses in Northern Ireland and, indeed, the consumers in Northern Ireland who struggle to buy goods which should be freely available within their own country,” he told BBC Radio Ulster.

Asked about the prospect of the EU retaliating by giving notice of its intent to suspend the trade deal, Mr Poots said: “It’s for the EU to choose whether they want a trade battle or whether they want to treat Northern Ireland with respect.

“Thus far they haven’t treated Northern Ireland with respect and they have forced our businesses, and indeed our consumers, to be deprived of goods that would normally be available in their own country by creating a false premise about the Single Market whenever we can quite easily ensure the integrity of the Single Market by taking the appropriate steps in Northern Ireland to ensure that goods don’t enter the European Union that haven’t met their standards.”

Edwin Poots’ department oversees new checks required on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain (Liam McBurney/PA)

The trade arrangements that have created economic barriers on the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland were originally agreed between the EU and UK as part of the Brexit withdrawal deal.

The protocol’s purpose was to avoid the creation of a hard border on the island of Ireland post-Brexit.

It has achieved that by effectively keeping Northern Ireland within the EU’s Single Market for goods, an arrangement that has led to the checks on products crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain.

Mr Poots said the solution is to limit checks to only those goods that are destined for onward transportation to the Irish Republic, not on the vast majority of products which arrive in Northern Ireland from Great Britain and stay there.

“What causes me real concern is that we have a solution to this and the European Union are not applying it currently,” he said.

“So, we can provide solutions to ensure the integrity of the Single Market, allegedly that was what it was about, and if the European Union won’t accept those solutions and choose to go down a route of a trade war then that demonstrates that there was some political influence being used to damage Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.”

First and Deputy First Minister nomination
DUP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots said he has instructed his officials to make preparations for Article 16 being triggered (Brian Lawless/PA)

On Tuesday, Mr Varadkar told RTE that the Irish Government is ramping up planning for a potential trade dispute.

“We’re making preparations,” he said.

“We had a meeting yesterday (Monday) of the Cabinet sub-committee on Brexit essentially to dust down, if you like, and restart our contingency preparations should we get into difficulty.

“I don’t think anybody wants to see the European Union suspending the Trade and Co-operation Agreement with Britain.

“But if Britain were to act in such a way that it was resiling from the protocol, resiling from the Withdrawal Agreement, I think the European Union would have no option other than to introduce what we call rebalancing measures to respond.”