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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the Lakeland Forum vaccination centre, in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland, on March 12, 2021.Charles McQuillan/The Associated Press

Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday defended Britain’s moves to ease post-Brexit trade checks with Northern Ireland that have angered the European Union, repeating on a trip to the province that they were lawful and right.

Since Britain left the EU’s single market at the end of last year, London’s ties with the bloc have soured, with both sides accusing the other of acting in bad faith in relation to part of their deal that covers goods movements to Northern Ireland.

On a trip to Northern Ireland to discuss its fight against the coronavirus pandemic, Johnson again mounted a defence of Britain’s unilateral move to extend grace periods for checks on some food products to the British province.

“What we want to ensure is that the protocol upholds the wishes of all communities, of both communities, and has the consent of both, so there’s got to be an east-west consent to what’s going on as well as north-south,” he said, referring to part of the Brexit deal called the Northern Ireland protocol.

“So what we’re doing is taking some lawful, some technical measures to build up confidence in the east-west operation as well. We think it’s lawful and indeed we think it’s right in view of the impact on the peace process and Good Friday Agreement.”

The EU disputes that the grace period extension is in line with the agreement, saying London should honour what it signed up to. It has promised to launch legal action, or a so-called “infringement procedure”, against Britain.

Northern Ireland’s future was bitterly contested during the Brexit negotiations, triggered by Britain’s vote to leave the EU in 2016.

London ultimately agreed to leave the province aligned to many of the rules governing the EU’s single market for goods to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, fearing it could be detrimental to the 1998 peace agreement that ended decades of conflict in the province.

Earlier this month, Northern Irish paramilitary groups told Johnson they were temporarily withdrawing support for the peace agreement because of concerns over the Brexit deal.

Johnson met Northern Ireland’s first minister, Arlene Foster, during his trip but not the leader of the nationalist Sinn Fein, Michelle O’Neill.

Johnson said he had invited O’Neill but she said on Twitter that he did not “facilitate the meeting request” to discuss matters relating to the protocol.

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