British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has announced a national law that, if passed, would overrule elements of the Brexit deal with the European Union.
It will give explicit powers to implement a new, revised Northern Ireland Protocol.
The Westminster announcement came despite warnings from Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney that such a move would break an international treaty.
Ms Truss told the House of Commons Britain is proposing a “comprehensive and sensible” solution to the problems – which will require changes to the protocol itself.
“Our preference remains a negotiated solution with the EU, and in parallel with the introduction of the legislation, we remain open to talks,” she said, referring to an invitation to the EU’s Brexit negotiator Maroš Šefčovič to meet in London.
But the announcement is significant because it depicts the UK acting unilaterally to abandon large parts of the post-Brexit deal for Northern Ireland.
Ms Truss asserted that “the point is not to abolish the protocol – our aim is to achieve the goals of the protocol”, citing the common travel area, the unified electricity market and north-south cooperation.
Introducing the concept of the new legislation, Ms Truss warned: “The basis for power-sharing remains strong…but the Belfast Agreement remains under pressure”.
She claimed that the Northern Ireland Protocol did not have the support of part of the Northern Ireland community, but that all parties in the North agreed that changes to it were needed.
She said that as the economy moved out of the Covid pandemic, people in the north were not able to enjoy the same benefits as other parts of the UK, for example because of tax rules.
Ms Truss proposes a “green channel” for goods, with controls only applying to those allowed to cross the border.
“It will continue to ensure that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland,” she said, adding that she would release more details in the coming weeks.
She said the UK government will finalize its legal basis “in due course” after being warned by shadow foreign policy spokesman Stephen Doughty that the move would damage Britain’s reputation and that “the rest of the world is looking to us”. . The move was “deeply disturbing,” he said.
Ms Truss outlined how the UK would introduce a Trusted Trader scheme so operators could move without controls, but there would be “robust penalties” for those who abuse the system – without explaining how abuse would be detected without controls.
“We need more flexibility from the EU. Protocol needs to be changed,” Ms. Truss said.
Tax rules mean citizens in Northern Ireland cannot reap the full benefits of the rest of the UK, like reduced VAT on solar panels, Ms Truss said, while SPS rules mean manufacturers are facing onerous restrictions including batteries of certification to sell animal feed in shops in Northern Ireland, she said.
“These practical problems have contributed to the feeling that the East-West relationship has been undermined.”
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the statement was welcome and “a significant step” that could restore power-sharing.
“We hope to see a bill that addresses these matters in weeks and months,” he said. “We want the Irish Sea border removed to protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.”
However, Secretary of State Simon Coveney said that unilateral action is not the right way to resolve issues arising from international treaties.
The protocol negotiated as part of the exit agreement is intended to prevent a hard border in Ireland after Great Britain leaves the EU.
The terms effectively keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods and create a hard border in the Irish Sea.
However, since the agreement was signed, there have been complaints from the UK that Brussels is insisting on overly strict controls on goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland, causing disruption to trade and tensions in the community.
Marks & Spencer chairman Archie Norman said the EU proposals for managing the protocol were “highly bureaucratic and quite useless” as UK food standards were “equal to or higher” than those set by Brussels.
The former Conservative MP told BBC Radio 4’s Today program the block is proposing that the same background checks, including veterinary checks, required for the Republic of Ireland are also required to bring goods into Northern Ireland from other parts of the UK to ship.
“By the way, that means every stick of butter in a sandwich has to have an EU veterinary certificate, so very bureaucratic and quite pointless,” he said.
The UK Government is advocating the establishment of “green lanes” whereby goods being transported between the UK and NI and not destined for transport to the Republic of Ireland would not be subject to the same level of controls as goods traveling in be introduced into the EU territory.
The row over the treaty has deadlocked efforts to form a Stormont government in Belfast, with the Democratic Unionist Party refusing to join an executive unless its concerns about the accords are allayed.
A majority of MLAs in Stormont’s newly elected Assembly represent parties supporting keeping the protocol, with many arguing that the deal offers the region protection from some of the negative economic consequences of Brexit.
They also point to the unrestricted access Northern Ireland traders have to sell into the EU single market as a key benefit of the protocol.
A UK Foreign Office source said Ms Truss’ priority was to uphold the Good Friday deal and denied she was trying to start a “fight” with Brussels.
The European Commission has urged the UK to start talks on the bloc’s proposals for protocol, saying it’s a ‘much better way than getting involved unilaterally’.
Daniel Ferrie, a spokesman for the Commission, told reporters in Brussels that the EU package offered during the October negotiations “was not an offer to take it or leave it”.
“The Vice-President (Maros Sefcovic) himself said in his statement on Thursday that we have made it clear that there is still potential to be explored in our proposals,” he said.