A unionist legal challenge against the UK government over the Northern Ireland Protocol is expected to be heard in the High Court between May 13 and 18, after the government withdrew its opposition to the application for a judicial review.
Former Brexit MEP Ben Habib, who has been co-ordinating the push for legal action on the matter, told The Daily Telegraph that ministers would no longer oppose legal proceedings, paving the way for the case to be heard at the High Court in Belfast.
Habib said: “I am delighted the government has conceded that leave should be granted without a preliminary hearing. It’s doing so is an acknowledgement of the integrity of the grounds of our case.
“I know I speak for all of us, the complainants and our supporters, when I say we are looking forward to having our day in court.”
The three main unionist party leaders in Northern Ireland have been spearheading the push for legal action, alongside Lord Trimble, one of the influential figures behind the Good Friday Agreement.
The legal proceedings aim to challenge the government over whether the post-Brexit trading conditions that apply in Northern Ireland are legal.
The Northern Ireland Protocol that was agreed with the EU as part of the UK's withdrawal from the bloc grants the region special status of operating within the UK’s internal market, while continuing to adhere to a number of EU rules to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
However, with a number of businesses arguing that Northern Ireland is now de facto operating as a country within the EU customs union amid significant disruption for both them and consumers, unionists are calling for the Protocol to be scrapped on the basis that it undermines the Act of Union 1800 and the Good Friday Agreement.
Unionists have also raised concerns over how Northern Ireland will be asked to provide its consent in 2024 for the Protocol to continue or end, as per the Brexit deal with the EU.
DUP leader and Northern Ireland first minister, Arlene Foster said: “The Protocol is damaging Northern Ireland and needs to be scrapped. The government should trigger Article 16 and restore the unfettered flow of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
“The granting of leave is another step towards this matter being tested in court. We want it dealt with as quickly as possible as more and more harm is inflicted every day the Protocol remains.”
Traditional Unionist Voice leader, Jim Allister QC, added: “While it is welcome that HMG reversed its initial response and is not now opposing our leave application in the Judicial Review, it should now face up to the main issue.
“Is this government, which built its Brexit policy on ‘taking back control’, going to make a mockery of its own mantra by defending in court a Protocol which hands control of Northern Ireland to the EU?
“Is Boris Johnston’s government going to be the one that defends the Protocol’s flagrant breach of the Acts of Union and wholly disrespects the ‘consent principle’ on which it claims its Northern Ireland policy is based?
“It’s time for HMG to face reality and give up defending the indefensible and getting on the side of defending the integrity of the United Kingdom.”