The UK has made a fresh attempt to solve the Brexit tensions in Northern Ireland by asking Brussels to phase in border checks in four stages, it has emerged.
The plan, revealed by BBC Northern Ireland, comes as the Brexit minister, David Frost, urged Brussels to stop “point-scoring” over the Northern Ireland protocol, hinting that the UK would take unilateral action if needed.
In a bluntly worded newspaper article, Lord Frost urged Brussels to find a new way to implement the protocols for trade across the Irish Sea, arguing that the EU had adopted a “purist” approach that was threatening the “political, social, or economic fabric of life in Northern Ireland”.
Frost again hinted that the UK could take unilateral action over the Brexit arrangements. “We are responsible for protecting the peace and prosperity of everyone in Northern Ireland and we will continue to consider all our options for doing so,” he wrote.
His comments reinforce a robust statement he made a week ago, seen in some quarters as an overtly political message to calm tensions among loyalist communities.
But behind the scenes work has intensified between Brussels and London. The UK has ruled out a food standards alignment deal that would have done away with 90% of border checks, according to Shanker Singham, one of the lead proponents for alternative arrangements for the border.
According to internal documents, the UK instead wants to phase in border checks on food. Phase 1 from 1 October would involve the introduction of export health certificates for fresh meat. Phase 2, from the end of January, would cover dairy products, garden centre plants, seeds and wine.
Phase 3 would cover fruit and vegetables and pet food, and phase 4 would cover “ambient” foods such as jams, products with a short shelf life and high-risk foods not of animal origin.
The UK says “concrete timelines” would evolve over the coming months, with the timings of phases 3 and 4 determined by the success of the first phases and some technical delivery conditions.
The discussion over practicalities contrast with political tensions being fanned on the UK side, with one ally of Boris Johnson reportedly saying the protocol was “dead in the water” over the weekend.
In the Mail on Sunday, Frost described the protocol as “a huge improvement on the old backstop” that was proposed by Theresa May and torn up as soon as Johnson succeeded her in 2019.
Frost accused the EU of trying to treat goods coming from Britain into Northern Ireland “in the same way as the arrival of a vast Chinese container ship at Rotterdam”.
“We did not anticipate this when we agreed the protocol and it makes no sense,” he said. “If the protocol operates so as to damage the political, social or economic fabric of life in Northern Ireland, then that situation cannot be sustained for long. So my message to our friends in Europe is: stop the point-scoring and work with us. Seize the moment, help find a new approach to Northern Ireland, and then we can build a new relationship for the future.”