Speaking in the House of Commons, UK foreign secretary Liz Truss confirmed government plans to bring forward a new bill enabling Westminster to take unilateral action to suspend parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Truss said that draft legislation will be published over the coming weeks, giving ministers the power to ease trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and abandon checks and paperwork on goods without EU consent.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is the provision within the Brexit deal signed in 2019 by the government and the EU which prevents a hard border on the island of Ireland but stipulates checks must be carried out on goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
While this is imperative to preserve peace in the region, it has angered unionists over the fact that it has created a trade border in the Irish Sea, undermining Northern Ireland’s position in the UK.
The EU maintains that the UK would be breaking international law if it presses on with unilateral action and has threatened trade sanctions in response.
However, Truss emphasised in her statement to MPs that the UK is still open to negotiating a compromise with the EU on improving how the Protocol works on the ground, and that legislation allowing for unilateral action would work as an insurance policy if a breakthrough cannot be achieved.
She said that the UK had already “worked tirelessly” in an effort to negotiate a rewriting of the Protocol with the EU, but Brussels’ preference to reduce checks on goods rather than scrap them completely meant that an impasse remained.
Explaining that the UK’s priority was to protect the Good Friday Agreement and that the Protocol had put this “under strain” due to a range of “practical problems” it had caused, Truss said: “We remain open to a negotiated solution, but the urgency of the situation means we can't afford to delay any longer.
“The UK has clear responsibilities as the sovereign government of Northern Ireland to ensure parity of esteem and the protection of economic rights.
“We are clear that the EU will not be negatively impacted in any way.”
The foreign secretary also insisted that the new bill was not intended to scrap the Protocol but would deliver on its objectives in a more practical way and would not contravene international law. This, she explained, would mean some elements of the Protocol would be changed while others would be reinforced.
She also revealed that businesses would be consulted before any proposed changes are implemented.
Truss added that unless the UK government had the ability to directly resolve issues caused by the Protocol, then the power-sharing devolved government in Northern Ireland was unlikely to be restored.
The recent Northern Ireland assembly election saw Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin emerge as the new largest party in the country. However, the Democratic Unionist Party [DUP], the second largest in terms of assembly members after the election, has refused to nominate ministers as an act of protest against the Protocol.
Without the DUP being willing to enter government, the new executive cannot be formed, and Northern Ireland will be left without a devolved administration at Stormont.
Within the government’s planned legislation to override parts of the Protocol will be a provision for new “green lanes” for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland which will see checks removed for goods that will not be continuing into the Republic of Ireland. Businesses will also be given the right to choose between meeting UK or EU standards in a new dual regulatory regime, and the UK government will have the power to decide on tax and spend policies across the entire country.
A new trusted trader scheme will also be set-up within the framework and firms that attempt to abuse the new regulatory system will be subject to penalties.
Responding to Truss’ statement, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson hinted that he would not commit to taking his party back into Stormont yet, but the news of draft legislation being in the pipeline came as a “welcome” step.
He said: “The statement today is a welcome if overdue step that is a significant move towards addressing the problems created by the Protocol and getting power-sharing based upon a cross-community consensus up and running again.
“Therefore, we hope to see progress on a Bill in order to deal with these matters in days and weeks, not months, and as the legislation progresses, we will take a graduated and cautious approach.
“The words today are a good start, but the foreign secretary will know that it is actions that speak louder than words and I welcome her commitment to such decisive action in this statement to the House.”
Elsewhere, reaction from opposition parties has been more critical, with Stephen Doughty, the Labour shadow minister for international development, calling the plans “deeply troubling”.
Urging the government and EU to “show willing and good faith”, Doughty said: “This is not a time for political posturing or high stakes brinkmanship.
“Everyone recognises that the situation in Northern Ireland is unique and we want checks to be reduced to their absolute necessary minimum and for them to properly reflect trade related risks.
“The right response to these challenges cannot simply be to breach our commitments. It is deeply troubling for the foreign secretary to be proposing a Bill to apparently break the treaty that the government itself signed just two years ago.
“That will not resolve issues in Northern Ireland in the long term and rather it will undermine trust and make a breakthrough more difficult. It would drive a downward spiral in our relationship with the EU that will have damaging consequences for British businesses and consumers.”
Doughty went on to suggest that the government either “did not understand their own agreement” when signing up to abide by the Protocol, or that they were “not up front about the reality of it or they intended to break it all along”.
“The prime minister negotiated this deal, signed it, ran an election campaign on it, he must take responsibility for it and make it work,” Doughty added.
Image taken from Wikimedia Commons