The European Commission and British government are discussing a possible grace period to allow retailers in Northern Ireland time to adapt to the significant changes that will come into effect on 1 January under the Northern Ireland Protocol.

It is understood that a temporary adjustment period, if agreed by both sides, would mean that large volumes of food going to supermarkets and other retailers from Great Britain would not immediately be subject to extra costs and certain paperwork.

Last week the First and Deputy First Ministers Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill sent a joint letter to the European Commission saying that any threat to the continuity of existing food supplies to supermarkets would be unacceptable.

Under the Irish Protocol, agreed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the EU last year, Northern Ireland remains part of the EU's single market, while the rest of the UK leaves.

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That means food consignments sent from Great Britain and destined for Northern supermarket shelves will be coming from a third country, and as such will be subject to EU food safety checks and controls.

On paper, these would normally include documentation for meat, fish, plant and dairy products. Since lorry consignments are usually mixed, the retail industry fears that one consignment might require hundreds of potentially expensive export health certificates.

Already Sainsbury's has said it may have to limit the range of food products sent to Northern Ireland branches.

The UK and EU have been locked in sometimes tense and sensitive talks through the Joint Committee, provided for in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, in order to implement the changes.

London wants maximum flexibility, even derogations, while the EU has been saying it cannot rewrite EU law to suit the UK.

It is understood, however, that the UK has asked for a grace period to allow supermarkets time to adapt and that the EU is considering this, on the condition that there is full compliance with the Protocol over time.

A further corollary is that the more exceptions the UK looks for, the greater the supervision the EU will insist on.

This in turn feeds into the highly sensitive issue of what kind of long-term presence EU officials will have in Northern Ireland in order to supervise how the Protocol is implemented.