This week the new DUP leader and Stormont Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots announced he was waiving the need for rabies checks and other paperwork for pets entering Northern Ireland from GB.

Instead of new obligations coming into effect on 1 July, under a schedule agreed by the EU and UK last December, Mr Poots said they would not be required until October, at the earliest.

In any event, he said, since Ireland and the UK had been rabies free since 1922, the requirements were pointless.

"This issue is yet another example of why the Northern Ireland protocol is not fit for purpose," Mr Poots said.

While the movements of pets did not hit the headlines when the protocol was being negotiated, the question of whether dogs should need a rabies-free certificate when crossing the Irish Sea has suddenly become an iconic one for the UK and unionists.

Under EU rules, domestic pets can move freely across EU borders since member states (as well as Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland) enjoy a "Part One" listing, meaning they are deemed rabies-free.

Countries outside that sphere (including the UK) are given a "Part Two" listing, meaning a rabies-free certificate is required. Some countries are not listed at all.

UK officials insist that the EU cannot seriously believe that rabies will enter the UK, make its way to Northern Ireland, and from there spread into the Republic and beyond to the rest of the EU.

For the EU, the reason it knows Europe will remain rabies-free is that each member state agrees to uniform rules.

EU officials are aware of the burden this is placing on pet owners in Northern Ireland, and officials are said to be looking for solutions.

But Mr Poots's unilateral action has added to a growing belief that the UK is acting in bad faith.

At the end of this month the grace period covering the import of chilled prepared meats, sausages, pies, and so on, also expires. Will the UK simply extend that grace period unilaterally as well?

"The commission recognises there's a human dimension to [pets]," says an EU diplomat. "But all of this stuff is being done unilaterally, without notification, without proper discussion. The commission is now reaching the end of that road."

Another senior EU diplomat says: "It’s bad faith. And London does not signal any intent to change its attitude."

EU officials hoped that by this month both sides would have been able to sign off on a joint road map, setting out a timetable for implementation by the UK, with the EU agreeing a range of flexibilities in return.

Compounding the ill-feeling is the belief that while the commission, according to officials, is working flat out to find flexibilities, the UK is either dragging its feet on implementing the Protocol, or publicly criticising the EU’s interpretation of it.

Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s co-chair of the Joint Committee, which holds an eagerly awaited meeting next week, has been articulating his growing frustration to member states.

Despite the turbulence since the start of the year, there had been some hopes that a Joint Committee meeting would herald a more harmonious application of the protocol.

"On the one hand Sefcovic wants to show people and politicians in Northern Ireland that the commission is genuinely committed to trying to sort this out," says an EU diplomat. "But on the other hand, he is approaching a moment of truth with the UK government on its unilateral actions."

Since February, EU and UK officials have narrowed down a list of between 25 and 30 contentious areas, with four being identified as the most difficult.

These include medicines, quotas on steel imports, VAT on second hand cars. sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) controls on food of animal origin and plants entering Northern Ireland from GB.

As part of that process, Brussels had asked the UK to provide a road map, spelling out, with timelines and "milestones", how it would implement the protocol.

On 30 March, the UK provided what it called a "work programme", but commission officials said it was vague on concrete steps. The UK was putting the onus on the EU to come up with solutions.

However, the technical talks continued.

An "agri-food forum" was set up to explore a range of issues around food safety and animal health and how checks on large volumes of supermarket produce, moving from GB to Northern Ireland, might be alleviated.

EU officials hoped that by this month, both sides would have been able to sign off on a joint road map, setting out a timetable for implementation by the UK, with the EU agreeing a range of flexibilities in return.

The talks have been intense, and it's not clear how productive.

The UK pressed the EU to take a risk-based approach to categories of food entering Northern Ireland so as to avoid the need for cumbersome Export Health Certificates (EHCs), or outright bans (such as on sausages and chilled, prepared meals).

What was the precise risk to the single market and consumer health and how could that risk be mitigated, was the UK’s ask.

Brussels explored the risk-based idea but concluded that a large body of EU law and jurisprudence, which all member states and the EEA countries sign up to, could not just be set aside to suit the UK.

The UK also pushed for the EU to agree an equivalence deal, whereby UK food standards are accepted as similar to EU ones.

Again, the EU rejected this, arguing that the UK had pledged to diverge from EU standards, and that model agreements with New Zealand and Canada are of a vastly smaller scale to food consignments moving between Britain and Northern Ireland.

"The general expectation for this [Joint Committee] meeting is that we're heading into very difficult territory," says one diplomat. "This is not going to be an easy meeting."

Instead, the EU has urged the UK to consider an SPS agreement, aligning with the EU’s food safety and animal health rules, even temporarily, in order to do away with 80% of the checks on the Irish Sea. London has so far refused to consider this.

As time passed, EU hopes of a breakthrough this month have been eroded, say officials, by the UK’s unilateral actions in extending grace periods or derogations without consultation, but also by the relentless sniping at the protocol, and the EU’s interpretation of it, by the chief Brexit minister David Frost.

Writing in the Belfast Telegraph this week, Mr Frost and Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis accused the EU of focusing on risks (to the single market and consumer health) "that don’t exist".

"Only if implemented in a pragmatic and proportionate way can the protocol support the peace process and ensure the people of Northern Ireland continue to see the benefits of prosperity and stability. If it does not do this, then it is not working," they wrote.

British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis

A senior British source gave the clearest indication yet of a desire to replace the protocol.

"There is going to have to be some form of protocol [governing the movement of goods between GB and Northern Ireland], if not this protocol," the source briefed journalists this week.

Instead of next week’s Joint Committee meeting heralding a breakthrough, Mr Sefcovic is expected to level with Mr Frost that the EU can no longer accept the UK’s alleged bad faith.

Mr Sefcovic told EU ambassadors on Thursday that the Commission may be forced to look at retaliatory measures contained within both the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), although the precise options were not specified.

"The general expectation for this [Joint Committee] meeting is that we're heading into very difficult territory," says one diplomat. "This is not going to be an easy meeting."

Officials in Brussels are unsure whether the British rhetoric is symptomatic of the heat typically generated ahead of a Joint Committee meeting, or whether it presages a harder collision in the weeks to come (and one that could coincide with the loyalist marching season).

"We're second guessing the intentions of the UK government, and it's been the same for four years now," said one official.

The UK has certainly hinted that it will take any further unspecified measures it deems necessary in order to "protect" the Good Friday Agreement, when officials are asked if they will trigger article 16 of the protocol.

EU diplomats believe the UK will not go that far. Article 16 places a relatively high bar on being absolved of one’s treaty obligations, and it is only a temporary measure.

It permits either party to adopt "safeguard" measures to avoid "serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties" that are likely to persist, but says they "shall be restricted with regard to their scope and duration to what is strictly necessary in order to remedy the situation".

Article 16 concludes: "Priority shall be given to such measures as will least disturb the functioning of this Protocol."

Instead, some EU officials fear a relentless degrading of the protocol to grind the EU down into taking a more lenient approach, or, according to some darker speculation, in order to hollow out the Protocol by creating "facts on the ground".

The European Commission has been scenario-testing.

"One view is that there will be a salami-slicing tactic," says one diplomat. "A drip-drip effect. They’ll try to water down the protocol, but the commission is now at the point where they will not accept this, and member states will not accept it either."

By contrast, the UK is now presenting itself as the more reliable defender of the Good Friday Agreement (a posture that has infuriated Irish officials), while also proclaiming a more proactive approach than the European Commission in trying to find solutions.

"The UK has now sent more than ten papers to the European Commission, proposing potential solutions on a wide range of issues," said a UK government spokesperson. "As yet, we have had no written response from the EU."

The spokesperson added: "Our priority continues to be the protection of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its dimensions. However, it [is] far from clear...whether the EU shares this position."

Six months after the protocol came into effect, arguments over the rights and wrongs of Brexit, the island of Ireland and the EU’s response, appear to be going around in circles.

In short, unless the EU is flexible, the Good Friday Agreement will be at risk.

The problem stems from two mutually incompatible interpretations of what the protocol’s obligations amount to. Does the aspiration for it to be as light touch as possible override its operational and legal requirements?

The UK’s answer to that question is nothing if not consistent (that is, at least, since the Protocol was agreed).

"For the protocol to work," Mr Frost’s predecessor Michael Gove wrote last year, "it must respect the needs of all Northern Ireland’s people ... and respect the need to bear as lightly as possible on the everyday life of Northern Ireland."

This is the lens through which the UK tends to view every trade friction necessitated by the protocol.

The "bear lightly" requirement is one of 24 paragraphs that make up the protocol’s preamble.

It states that "the application of this protocol should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities in both Ireland and Northern Ireland".

The EU’s view is that this aspiration obliges both sides to be as flexible as possible, but that it does not override the detailed obligations regarding checks and controls on the Irish Sea which are legally binding.

"Our reading of the references to the aim of avoiding controls is that, of course, we want to use all possibilities and all flexibilities that are in keeping with the legislation to make this work as smoothly as possible," says one EU official closely involved at the time.

"But to say that references in the protocol to the aim of avoiding controls to the extent possible, in accordance with applicable legislation, can overrule an operative article that is crystal clear, and which makes that legislation applicable, is very much stretching it."

The EU is adamant that the issues at stake have been clear ever since both sides started out on their quest to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

If the UK was going to leave the single market and customs union, then a customs and regulatory border would appear somewhere, and the food safety and animal health part of that - or SPS in the jargon - was always going to be the most challenging.

In April 2020, as it fretted over the UK’s slow preparation for the protocol, the European Commission circulated a technical note to member states.

It outlined what the UK had committed to, ie, the full range of checks and controls that are required across numerous areas: customs, SPS, state aid, fisheries, VAT.

The technical note concluded (and this was still eight months ahead of 1 January) that "to avoid disruptions of business activity, the United Kingdom should urgently engage with the business community in Northern Ireland, as businesses must be able to prepare for the new requirements well in advance."

The UK Command Paper setting out how it would implement the Protocol, published just one month later, agreed that the Protocol "exists to ensure that the progress that the people of Northern Ireland have made in the 22 years since the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is secured into the future."

But it repeatedly emphasised that this was all potentially temporary (given that the Stormont Assembly could vote down the Protocol’s main provisions in 2024).

It also downplayed the nature of the controls on the Irish Sea, and insisted that those controls should be applied flexibly.

Because the Good Friday Agreement was founded on a commitment to economic prosperity in Northern Ireland, hand in hand with political stability, then the protocol should not impinge upon that economic prosperity, was the argument.

In short, unless the EU is flexible, the Good Friday Agreement will be at risk.

At the time this was viewed in Brussels as a unilateral interpretation. The preamble aim of minimising the burden was an aspiration that could not undermine the operational part.

The EU says that, despite the primacy of those operational (as opposed to aspirational) parts of the protocol, the commission spent most of last year negotiating, with London, a series of grace periods and derogations that would make the protocol less burdensome and which would give businesses time to adapt.

Indeed, Michael Gove told the House of Commons in December that the agreement reached did provide stakeholders and businesses with sufficient time and flexibility.

However, both sides are once again at odds over what the protocol should prioritise.

"The EU seems to want to treat goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK in the same way as the arrival of a vast Chinese container ship at Rotterdam," Mr Frost wrote in the Mail on Sunday on 16 May.

The EU points out that Chinese container ships are not carrying huge volumes of agri-food products of animal origin bound for European supermarkets.

Officials insist a huge body of EU SPS legislation and jurisprudence cannot be simply waved aside to suit the UK, especially when there is an open offer for the UK to align with EU veterinary standards in the same way that Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein do.

Officials insist that once you declare to the world that normal rules don’t apply, then the market - and criminal gangs - will adapt to a new grey zone on the EU’s external border.

The question is, why wasn’t this internal friction resolved before the protocol was signed?

David Frost has told the Spectator that in October 2019 the UK was under pressure from the House of Commons and the Benn Act which prevented Boris Johnson from walking away to a No Deal outcome.

David Frost looks on as Boris Johnson poses for photos after signing the Brexit trade deal

Whether or not this is true, EU officials insist that the precise detail of what the protocol would require was discussed time and time again during the two and a half years running up to October 2019.

They add that stakeholders, businesses, logistics firms, retail organisations and Northern Ireland officials were fully aware of what the protocol meant - and how Brexit had hit the delicate balances of the Good Friday Agreement - since they had held numerous meetings with commission officials over the course of the negotiations.

Even if they were concerned about its implications, especially the requirement for Export Health Certificates for mixed food consignments going to supermarkets, they understood what was involved, say officials.

UK officials have always argued that the Joint Committee process, set up to implement the protocol, gave broad latitude to both sides to use discretion and pragmatism when implementing checks and controls.

"We did know what we were signing up for," says a UK source, "but we also recognise there needs to be a discussion around how it is implemented. And we expected greater flexibility from the Commission on how you implement it."

Commission sources admit that during the British general election in December 2019, they did not intervene when Boris Johnson and others declared there would be no checks or controls on the Irish Sea.

This was borne from a desire to stay out of the election campaign, and because the Withdrawal Agreement, concluded in October, had yet to be ratified.

However, once it was ratified, the commission was quick to insist that the protocol had to be taken seriously.

"Now is the time to implement it precisely," Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, told an audience at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) in January 2020.

"The Withdrawal Agreement must be applied with rigour and discipline by all sides. It cannot be reopened under the guise of implementation. We will be monitoring its correct application very carefully."

Furthermore, EU officials describe as "farcical" the idea that the detail on implementing the protocol would all be worked out by the Joint Committee after it was signed, or that there was no clarity as to what would be demanded of UK authorities.

A clear-sighted discussion of technical issues is being poisoned by allegations of bad faith and hypocrisy

"There may have been an implied hope or expectation of that," says one EU official, "and that's what you see in the [UK] Command Paper: a willingness to try to re-discuss some of these points.

"Did they say, we will sign this but please be under no illusion this will ever be implemented? No.

"If they had said that, we would have said, don't sign it. If you do sign, then we will expect you to respect your obligations."

However, raking over what happened in 2019 will not get the process very far.

The commission insists it is trying to find solutions on medicines, steel imports, pets, plants, VAT and so on, and it is likely that negotiators envisage an overall package of measures (in return for a solemn commitment by the UK that it will implement the protocol), the details of which have yet to be revealed.

UK officials insist the EU must go further than what has been signalled.

One British idea on food safety, animal health, and pets, which may or may not be in the mix, involves something between dynamic alignment with EU rules (Brussels’ preference) and equivalence (the UK’s preference).

It would amount to an agreement that both sides start from a position where they share common high standards on food safety, animal health and pet health.

If the UK then decided to diverge from those standards, it would alert the EU, and both sides would agree on what kind of mitigation could be used to minimise the risk.

In the case of rabies, this would mean the EU granting the UK a discretionary "Part One" status for pets, and that if rabies ever threatened to appear in the UK, that could be immediately downgraded to "Part Two" status.

"So, we stop talking about equivalence and we stop talking about dynamic alignment," says one UK source.

"And we start talking about risks and mitigating actions, and mechanisms to ensure that we talk to each other about any potential changes and what the consequences might be. That would be a fruitful area of discussion."

It is unclear if this has been formally tabled, and what the EU’s response will be. For now, a clear-sighted discussion of technical issues is being poisoned by allegations of bad faith, hypocrisy, and even an accusation that the UK is playing footsie with potential loyalist violence during the marching season.

If Michel Barnier were still at the table, he would surely say that the clock is ticking.