Migrant worker flower pickers from Romania harvest daffodils on Taylors Bulbs farm near Holbeach in eastern England, on Wednesday. - AFP

LONDON: Britain yesterday denied EU accusations it was violating the Brexit divorce treaty after announcing unilateral trade remedies for Northern Ireland. "These are sensible and practical steps," Prime Minister Boris Johnson's official spokesman told reporters after the government said it would extend a post-Brexit grace period and defer checks on agri-foods entering Northern Ireland from Britain.

"These types of operational measures are well-precedented and common in other international trade agreements, and are entirely consistent with our intention to fulfill our obligations under the (Northern Ireland) Protocol in good faith," he insisted. The spokesman denied that the EU and Ireland had been blindsided by the steps announced on Wednesday, which followed weeks of disruption for trade in Northern Ireland since the UK's definitive withdrawal from the bloc's single market and customs area.

They were given notice "earlier this week", he said, stressing the Brexit protocol for Northern Ireland had produced a "disproportionate impact" on the province. And Downing Street rejected complaints in Dublin that the UK had betrayed the EU's trust, prompting talk of legal action in retaliation.

"We wouldn't accept that characterization," the spokesman said. "We remain committed to the Northern Ireland Protocol but we just want to address those areas where there are issues that have arisen," he said, highlighting food in supermarkets and customs problems with sending parcels from Britain across the Irish Sea.

Meanwhile, pro-UK paramilitaries say they are abandoning support for Northern Ireland's 1998 peace deal because of a post-Brexit trading pact that has provoked crisis between London and Brussels. In a letter Wednesday to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the Loyalist Communities Council said it was "hereby withdrawing support for the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and its institutions until our rights under the agreement are restored". The LCC represents three militant groups that were responsible for many deaths during 30 years of conflict between pro-UK unionists and pro-Irish republicans, before the peace was sealed in 1998.

The council emphasized that unionist opposition to the Brexit deal's Northern Ireland Protocol should remain "peaceful and democratic". But its announcement offers more evidence that Northern Ireland's delicate balance of peace is being destabilized as a result of Brexit, with unionists furious over new border checks that they say are separating them by stealth from the rest of the UK.

The checks on goods at two ports in Northern Ireland were briefly suspended last month after graffiti appeared threatening staff, and senior police have said there is a "febrile" atmosphere in the province. The protocol was agreed by London and Brussels to prevent a hard border emerging between Northern Ireland and EU member the Republic of Ireland, a flashpoint in the decades-long sectarian conflict.

Blame game

The LCC said it would withhold support for the Good Friday Agreement until the protocol is amended to ensure "unfettered access for goods, services, and citizens throughout the United Kingdom". "If you or the EU is not prepared to honor the entirety of the agreement then you will be responsible for the permanent destruction of the agreement," it told Johnson.

Tensions surrounding the trading arrangements deepened on Wednesday when Britain unilaterally announced it would extend a post-Brexit grace period, deferring checks on agri-foods entering Northern Ireland from Britain. The EU said the UK action amounts to a breach of international law, and Irish broadcaster RTE reported the bloc is considering legal action. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told RTE that the British move was "deeply unhelpful". - AFP