A minister has denied that the UK overriding parts of its its post-Brexit Northern Ireland trade deal would break international law – as the government reportedly looks at sweeping powers to tear it up .
Under the proposed legislation, ministers would have unilateral powers to switch off key parts of the Northern Ireland protocol in UK law, including border checks on goods travelling to Northern Ireland from Great Britain, according to the Financial Times.
The arrangement is highly sensitive because, while it is designed to avoid the imposition of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, it creates a trade border in the Irish Sea – and has been rejected by Unionist parties.
According to the FT, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss have in principle signed off plans to put forward a Northern Ireland bill early in the next parliamentary session, which starts next month.
It said the plans – which would be likely to provoke anger in Brussels – have not yet been presented to the cabinet.
Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns, speaking to LBC, would not be drawn on the FT report, but pointed out the government already had powers under Article 16 of the protocol allowing it to suspend elements of it.
He said the arrangement was causing “significant societal disruption in Northern Ireland” and hoped the EU would “come back to the table” to allow changes to be made.
“If they don’t hear that, then the government reserves the right, as we have always said, as laid down in the protocol, to take remedial action,” he said.
Asked about whether the government was preparing to break international law on the protocol, Mr Burns told Sky News: “If you’re talking about the longstanding assertion, going back as far as July last year, that we believe that the circumstances, the threshold for triggering Article 16 – a provision of the treaty, of the protocol, invoking that provision – that’s not breaking international law.
“That is applying a trigger mechanism that is built into the protocol.”
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle told Sky News the plan reported by the FT was “absolutely astonishing and incredibly damaging”.
“If we just recklessly pull out of it [the protocol] unilaterally, how will any other country in the world sign a deal with us and think that we will honour it?,” Mr Kyle said.
“How will [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi react today when Boris Johnson asks for a trade deal if he is pulling out unilaterally of the last trade deal he signed?”
A government spokesperson told the FT: “No decisions have yet been taken and our overriding priority continues to be the protection of peace and stability in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Johnson, speaking during a news conference on a trip to India, said that the protocol “does not command the confidence of a large component of the population in Northern Ireland”, adding: “We have to fix that.”
He said this could involve “very simple and reasonable steps” and that talks with the EU would continue.
“But I have said many times now we don’t rule out taking further steps if that’s necessary,” he added.