UK’s threat to breach Northern Ireland protocol triggers parliamentary backlash


Warnings have been made that ‘no honourable country should act unilaterally’ by breaking an international agreement.

Liz Truss

The foreign secretary has warned the UK will not ‘shy away’ from taking action over the NI post-Brexit agreement.

While no bill was announced in Tuesday’s Queen’s speech, Liz Truss is reported to have asked officials to prepare draft legislation that would unilaterally abandon key parts of the Northern Ireland protocol.

The tearing up of crucial elements of the controversial post-Brexit regulatory framework, which aligns NI more closely with the EU than the rest of the UK, would include removing the need for checks on goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, relinquishing powers of the European court of justice, and withdrawing requirements for businesses in Northern Ireland to follow EU regulations.  

Sinn Fein’s historic victory

The belief that Britain is not able to wait for negotiations with the EU over NI to conclude before preparing to act unilaterally comes in the wake of Sinn Fein’s historic victory in the Northern Ireland elections over the weekend.

For the first time, Sinn Fein, which wants to unite all of Ireland, won the most seats in Northern Ireland’s assembly, bringing dominance by Unionists, which support the British Crown and constitution, to an end.

The Democratic Unionists, which were pushed into second place in the elections, are refusing to resume power sharing without amendments to the protocol.

Talking to the Irish prime minister, Michael Martin, Boris Johnson said he was prepared to “take action” to unilaterally override the Northern Ireland Brexit deal, describing the situation as “very serious.”

Scrapping of parts of the protocol as early as next week

According to a report in The Times, Johnson would move as soon as next week to scrap large parts of the protocol in British law.

Suggestions that the UK may take its own steps to ignore parts of the protocol have triggered immediate backlash from multiple representatives, with the EU emphasising that its mandate is not set to change, and senior UK officials cautioning that stability in Northern Ireland was at stake.

Some cabinet ministers, including Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove, are reported to be uneasy about the high risks involved in Truss’s strategy, and a potential trade war between the UK and the EU.

Theresa May warns of reputational damage for the UK  

Among the critics of the proposal to unilaterally suspend parts of the framework is Theresa May.

The former prime minister has warned that tearing up parts of the agreement risks harming the UK’s reputation for abiding by international law.  

In a speech in the Commons, May said that the government needed to consider the “wider sense of what such a move would say about the United Kingdom and its willingness to abide by treaties which it has signed.”

EU leaders are also warning Britain against overriding the post-Brexit deal on Northern Ireland.

The German chancellor Olaf Scholz said Johnson should throw away plans to rip up parts of the protocol, while reminding that the prime minister had himself signed the agreement in 2019.    

“No one should unilaterally scrap or break or in any way change the arrangement we agreed on together,” Scholz said.

‘Don’t touch this’

The Belgian prime minister, Alexander De Croo, has warned the UK not to touch the protocol, saying the EU’s message is “quite clear.”

“Don’t touch this, this is something we agreed on,” he said.

Simon Hoare, the Conservative chairman of the Northern Ireland select committee, said that “no honourable country should act unilaterally” by breaking an international agreement.

It is understood that Brussels is considering imposing retaliatory measures should legislation that goes back on the agreement become law.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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