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ENNISKILLEN (Reuters) – Britain hit back on French President Emmanuel Macron’s hardline stance on Brexit on Friday in a smoldering row over new trade deals for Northern Ireland.

Macron warned London on Thursday that it was “not serious” to review the agreements signed last December, just weeks before the UK left the European single market and customs union.

“Nothing is renegotiable,” he said before heading to the G7 leaders’ summit in England.

But UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab insisted Brussels should be more flexible in its approach to Northern Ireland, which shares the UK’s only land border with the EU.

Under the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, checks are required on certain goods destined for the British province from mainland Great Britain – England, Scotland and Wales.

But it angered Unionist communities who say it has driven a wedge between them and the rest of the UK, and blamed it for a resurgence of violence.

Controls have been suspended and London has extended a grace period for controls on deliveries of refrigerated meat products in the province.

“The change must come from the side of the European Commission,” said Raab. “We are not negotiating or haggling the integrity of the UK,” he told Sky News.

Talks to try to resolve the issue were broken off in London without a deal on Wednesday, with Brussels threatening to take punitive action if London does not implement the deal.

The arrangement – to prevent uncontrolled goods from entering the EU via the member state of Ireland – effectively means that Northern Ireland is still part of the European single market.

‘Imbalance’

The row threatened to eclipse the G7 summit, with reports that US President Joe Biden was angry at the potential damage to the 1998 peace deal that ended three decades of violence against British rule in North Ireland.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson played down reports of a rift on Thursday, after the two met for 90 minutes of talks on the eve of the G7 leaders’ meeting.

But the problem is unlikely to go away, with Johnson set to meet with EU leaders keen to resolve the impasse at the summit this weekend.

And in Northern Ireland itself, thousands of people gathered in west Belfast on Thursday evening in defiance of coronavirus restrictions to protest the protocol. Police estimated that more than 3,000 people illegally surrendered and marched on Shankill Road. Social media images showed the burning of a United Ireland banner.

Anger at protocol has already led to the resignation of Prime Minister Arlene Foster and her replacement by a more intransigent trade unionist who has pledged a harder line.

His successor at the head of the Democratic Unionist Party, Edwin Poots, called on Thursday for the complete abolition of the protocol because it was not feasible.

“It has to go,” he said.

Foster was more restrained after a Friday meeting of the British-Irish Council, which includes the British and Irish governments, and heads of decentralized administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The protocol caused an “imbalance” in relations between pro-British trade unionists and nationalists in favor of the union of Ireland with Northern Ireland, she said.

Posted in Dawn, le 12 June 2021

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