BoJo Touts Need for 'Insurance’ Option on NI Protocol Amid Warning of ‘Very Strong’ Risk to Economy
09:01 GMT 17.05.2022 (Updated: 15:35 GMT 28.05.2023)
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is expected to make a statement on Tuesday about the government's plans to introduce legislation that could override key parts of the 2019 Brexit deal relating to the NI protocol, which established checks on some goods moving between the UK and Northern Ireland, signed when the country finalised its divorce from the EU.
Amid heightened risks of a trade war between the UK and EU, Boris Johnson has defended the need for an "insurance" option to unilaterally scrap post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, known as the NI protocol
The British prime minister said the proposed legislation to rewrite parts of the protocol contained in the original 2019 divorce agreement with the European Union were only necessary in the event that talks with Brussels on improving this aspect of the deal failed.
"We would love for this to be done in a consensual way with our friends and partners, ironing out some of these problems. But to get that done, to have the insurance, we need to proceed with a legislative solution at the same time", Johnson said, addressing the issue as he visited Northern Ireland for talks with its political leaders.
Johnson underscored in the Belfast Telegraph that the UK would have a “necessity to act” if Brussels remains reluctant to drop checks on goods coming from Britain into Northern Ireland.
“What we're doing is sticking up for the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, and what we're doing is trying to protect and preserve the government of Northern Ireland. And yes, you're right, there's a cost-of-living issue, but that's certainly not being helped by extra barriers to trade, extra burdens on business that are being caused by the protocol”.
The PM has been meeting with the leaders of the five main parties of Northern Ireland to discuss potential changes to the post-Brexit trading arrangements.
“We will set out a more detailed assessment and next steps to Parliament in the coming days, once I return from discussions with the local parties”, Johnson added.
Speaking to reporters, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Jeffrey Donaldson said he hoped Boris Johnson’s government would work towards restoring a consensus in Northern Ireland, saying:
“It's actions that I will judge these things on, not just words".
Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald revealed that her party, which won an impressive victory
in the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly earlier this month, had a "fairly tough" meeting with Johnson. According to her, they warned the PM that taking unilateral action over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland would be wrong.
"We have said directly to him that the proposed unilateral act of legislating at Westminster is wrong. It seems to us absolutely extraordinary that the British government would propose to legislate to break the law", said McDonald.
She added that the British government was “in a game of brinkmanship with the European institutions, indulging a section of political unionism which believes it can frustrate and hold society to ransom”.
NI Protocol Stalemate
To safeguard a vital part of the 1998 Good Friday peace deal that put an end to three decades of violence, the NI protocol allowed Britain to leave the EU's single market and customs union without controls being re-imposed on the border between the Republic of Ireland (in the European Union) and Northern Ireland (in the UK). However, in effect, when the deal came into force in January 2021, a customs border was imposed between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Thus, checks were to be carried out when goods arrive in Northern Ireland from England, Scotland, and Wales, incensing many unionists, who claimed it meant that NI was being treated differently from the rest of the UK.
The NI protocol has become a major hurdle in London’s negotiations with Brussels over post-Brexit trade rules. While the UK government has been seeking changes to this aspect of the arrangement, Brussels has been adamant that there would be no drastic overhaul of the protocol.
However, the crisis over the issue has taken on greater urgency since the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly earlier this month.
The nationalist party Sinn Fein emerged as the biggest winner at Stormont – the devolved legislature of Northern Ireland – but cannot take up that power-sharing role without the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) agreeing to enter government in Northern Ireland. The DUP, which opposes the NI protocol, blocked the appointment of a speaker to the assembly. DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said last week that “we cannot nominate to an executive until decisive action is taken on the Protocol”.
According to the party, the protocol has “eroded the foundations” that devolution was built on. Furthermore, the DUP election manifesto describes the protocol as "an existential threat" to the future of Northern Ireland's place within the UK.
Risk to Economy is ‘Very Strong’
With the UK government poised to announce
plans to introduce draft legislation scrapping parts of the controversial protocol, Brussels has repeatedly made clear that it risks retaliatory action. Measures taken by the EU could include the possible suspension of the UK-EU trade deal and imposition of costly tariffs which could further add to the growing cost of living crisis millions of households in the UK face.
Three senior Tory MPs have reiterated the looming risk to the economy from draft legislation planned by the UK government.
Simon Hoare, chairman of the Northern Ireland committee, was cited by The Standard as saying:
“The risk to the economy is very strong. If we act in bad faith and breach an agreed Treaty… If we tear it up and rewrite it...what do we think will happen? What would we expect if the boot was on the other foot? Action will generate a response as it would vice versa. No time is a good time to be breaching an international treaty. But doing it during a cost of living crisis is the worst of times”.
Hoare also denounced what he called Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s “silly sabre rattling and reputation fluffing”.
Sir Bob Neill, chair of the Commons Justice Committee, urged Johnson to steer clear of “needless confrontation”.
“At the moment it would not be a good time to be risking any type of trade war or anything which makes doing business between ourselves and our biggest trading partner harder", he stated.
Mel Stride, chair of the Commons Treasury Committee, said any kind of trade war with the EU would be “very unsatisfactory”.
Meanwhile, a senior Downing Street source was cited as saying that the government was “not looking to start a trade war” with Brussels.
“It’s really not the plan. This is about the restoration of democracy and the safeguarding of peace. Plans to allow us to override the Protocol down the line is very much a last resort if we can’t sort this calmly and rationally without drama”, the source underscored.
The No 10 insider added that “just a tiny bit of … goodwill in Northern Ireland” on the part of the EU should “would solve this in no time”.