Northern Ireland Protocol Bill clears first parliamentary hurdle

Published by Scott Challinor on June 28th 2022, 9:09am

On Monday, MPs gave initial support to the government’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which will enable the government to override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol within the Brexit deal with the EU.

The Bill was backed by 295 MPs and opposed by 221 [majority of 74], as its critics warned that the legislation would be in breach of international law.

The EU has already started legal action, but the UK government believes that it is acting within the bounds of international law and foreign secretary Liz Truss insists it is the only means of being able to right the wrongs within the Protocol and was justified by a “worsening” state of affairs in Northern Ireland.

Truss also accused the EU of not showing enough “flexibility” during negotiations around the Protocol’s workings and said that solutions the bloc had put forward would not have been sufficient.

Legally, Truss argued that the Protocol was directly leading to unrest in Northern Ireland and changes had to be made to the agreement to preserve the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Northern Ireland.

While Labour opposed the legislation, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy did concede that the EU had been “too rigid” in negotiations and called for both sides to return to the table for talks.

What the government is seeking to do is override how the Protocol enforces checks on goods moving into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

To avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland following Brexit, Northern Ireland effectively remained inside the EU single market and customs union under the Protocol, but checks on some goods entering the country from elsewhere in the UK have now been introduced.

Unionists argue that this undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, is damaging to the local economy, and has effectively created an Irish Sea trade border which has led to disruption and shipping delays.

MPs from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party [DUP], which has refused to enter a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland following the recent assembly elections as an act of protest against the Protocol, have backed the Bill.

Speaking during the debate for the Bill’s first reading, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that the Protocol’s impact on Northern Ireland had been “devastating”.

The passing of the draft legislation following its first reading means it can now progress through Parliament to be scrutinised further, and the UK government expects the DUP to return to the Northern Ireland Executive if the Bill continues to make its way through Parliament unhindered.

According to parliamentary voting lists, no Conservative MPs voted against the Bill, but former prime minister Theresa May strongly warned of her concerns that the legislation could breach international law and appeared to abstain from the vote.

May argued that the Bill was not introduced as emergency legislation, which undermined the legal argument that it was a “necessity” to resolve the situation in Northern Ireland.

May said: “There is nothing urgent about this Bill. It has not been introduced as emergency legislation. It's likely to take not weeks but months to get through Parliament.”

May added that in her eyes the legislation was “not legal” and would “diminish the standing” of the UK internationally.

Despite May's suggestion that the Bill could take some time to pass through Parliament, the government is hoping to get the Bill through the Commons before the summer recess in mid-July, but it is likely to face resistance in the House of Lords.

Tory MP Simon Hoare, another who was concerned that the Bill did break the UK’s international law obligations, also suggested it could take until the Spring of 2023 to fully pass through both Houses and reach Royal Assent. 

Meanwhile, prime minister Boris Johnson insisted that the government could get the legislation through "fairly rapidly".

Photo by Rocco Dipoppa on Unsplash

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Scott Challinor
Business Editor
June 28th 2022, 9:09am

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