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Bill to scrap Northern Ireland Brexit rules is published


Boris Johnson set a collision course with Brussels and Remainer peers tonight as legislation to scrap Brexit rules for Northern Ireland was finally published.

A new Bill, presented to Parliament this evening, is aimed at sweeping away key parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol – including a check-free ‘green channel’ for goods from mainland Britain and stripping control from the EU court.

It would also ensure that VAT changes from Westminster apply to the province, permit state subsidies, and give ministers wide-ranging powers to cancel more of the divorce terms later if required.

The Government is arguing the move does not break international law because there is an established ‘doctrine of necessity’ for changing treaties if they are causing serious harm.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss argued she is bringing forward ‘practical solutions’ to protect the Good Friday Agreement rather than ‘picking a fight with the EU’.

Aides said Brussels had refused to update the negotiating mandate for European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, meaning that there was no hope currently of breaking the deadlock. 

Ms Truss insisted the UK remained open to further talks with Brussels, but stressed how the EU had so far ‘refused to change the Protocol’.

Brussels immediately hit back following the publication of the Bill, with the EU warning it would now consider resuming legal action against the UK.

This had been paused since September last year while negotiations over the Protocol were held.

Mr Sefcovic also raised the prospect of further legal action and a wider trade war with Britain.

He insisted the Brexit divorce deal – including arrangements for Northern Ireland – was a ‘pre-condition’ for the establishment of the new EU-UK post-Brexit trading relationship.

The Brussels official stuck to his recent mantra that the EU ‘will not renegotiate the Protocol’.

Alongside the Bill, the Government tonight also published a legal statement outlining why the action did not breach international law, as well as a 10-page document setting out the ‘problems and solutions’ to the Protocol row.

The Prime Minister earlier risked inflaming the spat by suggesting the Protocol overhaul is ‘relatively trivial’.

Mr Johnson claimed it would be an ‘overreaction’ for Brussels to follow through on threats of trade reprisals.

The legislation is likely to take some time to get on the statute book.

A vote is expected in the House of Commons before the summer, but there will be fiercer resistance in the House of Lords. 

If the Government is blocked entirely by peers it will have to invoke MPs’ supremacy using the Parliament Act – which can only happen after a year has passed. 

In other developments tonight: 

  • In a setback for ministers, even before the text of the legislation was released, the ERG group of Tory MPs said it will not give swift approval for the plans. Instead the Eurosceptics will convene a ‘Star Chamber’ of politician lawyers to scrutinise the proposals line-by-line; 
  • A majority of MLAs in the Stormont Assembly have signed a joint letter to the PM stating their opposition to the legislation; 
  • The Government is publishing a ‘solutions’ document alongside the law spelling out how it believes the standoff could be resolved. 
Liz Truss

Maros Sefcovic

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss (left) is publishing the Bill today despite threats from the EU’s Maros Sefcovic (right)  

There have been warnings that the Protocol is disrupting the careful peace balance in Northern Ireland

There have been warnings that the Protocol is disrupting the careful peace balance in Northern Ireland

The PM (pictured on a visit to Cornwall today) played down the impact of the Bill -  presented to Parliament this afternoon - suggesting the changes to the Protocol were 'relatively trivial'

The PM (pictured on a visit to Cornwall today) played down the impact of the Bill –  presented to Parliament this afternoon – suggesting the changes to the Protocol were ‘relatively trivial’

In a call this morning, Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney warned Ms Truss that introducing a Bill to unilaterally amend the Northern Ireland Protocol would breach international law and 'deeply damage' relationships

In a call this morning, Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney warned Ms Truss that introducing a Bill to unilaterally amend the Northern Ireland Protocol would breach international law and ‘deeply damage’ relationships

The Bill, presented to Parliament tonight, aims to sweep away key parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, including a check-free 'green channel' for goods from mainland Britain and stripping control from the EU court

The Bill, presented to Parliament tonight, aims to sweep away key parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, including a check-free ‘green channel’ for goods from mainland Britain and stripping control from the EU court

The Government set out the Bill's main changes to the Protocol in a 10-page 'problems and solutions' document

The Government set out the Bill’s main changes to the Protocol in a 10-page ‘problems and solutions’ document

How the Northern Ireland row threatens to undo Brexit deal 

The row over the Northern Ireland Protocol began almost as soon as the Brexit agreement with the EU came into force.

The two sides had to find a way of avoiding a hard border while maintaining the integrity of the UK, and avoid undermining the integrity of the EU customs union and single market.

The Protocol avoids a hard border between by effectively keeping Ulster inside the EU’s single market. 

However, Brussels has been adamant that means checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea from Britain.

Unionists are implacably opposed to the idea, arguing it ‘others’ an integral part of the UK. 

The UK began talks seeking to alter the terms of the agreement, despite it having been signed off by the PM just months earlier.

The toughest part of the Protocol have never come into force, due to a series of delays brought in by both camps.

In March last year the UK unilaterally extended the agri-food exemptions, something that triggered the EU to start breach proceedings.

However, despite experts suggesting there is a landing zone available, political tensions have made a deal impossible.

The UK has threatened to trigger Article 16 of the Treaty, which is available to suspend the provisions if they are causing major social upheaval.

However, a command paper previously suggested using legislation instead as a more permanent solution.

The UK insists that the problem lies with the negotiating mandate given to vice-president Maros Sefcovic, which does not allow enough scope to find a settlement.

The Bill is now finally being published, spelling out the arrangements that the UK believes are feasible.

But it will take time to pass the law, and it is not likely to come into force immediately even when on the statute books.

As a result the government has more time – and it hopes more leverage – to hammer out an agreement.

The legislation could make it trickier though as the British demands are now spelled out in black and white, meaning potentially less scope for compromise. 

The Biden administration has also taken a dim view, urging continued talks to solve the problem. 

One carrot in the process is the chance to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland.  

DUP first minister Paul Givan resigned in February in an effort to force movement.

That left the Executive unable to function, due to the way it was set up to share power under the Good Friday Agreement. While ministers remained in post, they were restricted in the actions they could take.

Since 1998, when the governance system was devised as part of Northern Ireland’s historic peace accord, the first minister has always been a Unionist.

That all changed last month, when Sinn Fein became the largest party at Stormont for the first time ever.

However, the DUP has insisted that it will not return until its demands over the Protocol are met. 

Ministers have made clear to the DUP that the new legislation will not be implemented unless they agree to resume powersharing first. 

The document outlining the Government’s legal position on the Protocol row, published alongside the Bill tonight, pointed to how the ‘doctrine of necessity provides a clear basis in international law to justify the non-performance of international obligations under certain exceptional and limited conditions’.

‘The term “necessity” is used in international law to lawfully justify situations where the only way a State can safeguard an essential interest is the non-performance of another international obligation,’ it added.

The Government argued that the ‘maintenance of stable social and political conditions in Northern Ireland’ were among ‘essential interests’ of the UK.

The PM’s spokesman said: ‘We believe the threshold has been met by the strain the arrangements under the Protocol are placing on institutions in Northern Ireland – and, more generally, on socio-political conditions – has reached the point where we have no other way of safeguarding the essential interests at stake than through the adoption of this legislative approach.’ 

Sources described the Bill as an ‘insurance mechanism’ in the absence of the EU being able to change its negotiating mandate.

Labour has accused the Government of ‘law-breaking’ and there have also been signs of resistance within Tory ranks, with some MPs circulating a note warning the plan will be highly damaging to the party’s reputation.

A former No10 adviser urged Conservative critics to hold their tongues today, saying the EU is looking for a ‘reason to just sit still and once again hope to deal with another PM’. 

‘It is impossible to rebel on this Bill without playing into that,’ Nikki da Costa said. 

Meanwhile, the influential European Research Group (ERG) of Tory Brexiteers withheld its immediate approval for the Bill.

Instead, the Eurosceptic MPs will convene their ‘Star Chamber’ of politician lawyers, chaired by senior backbencher Sir Bill Cash, to scrutinise the proposals line-by-line. 

ERG chairman Mark Francois told the Telegraph: ‘Just as they did with the original Withdrawal Agreement and the subsequent Trade and Co-Operation Agreement, the Star Chamber will now examine this new Bill, line-by-line, to ensure that it is not only legally sound but fully restores the sovereignty of UK law in Northern Ireland, as an integral part of the United Kingdom.’ 

It is understood Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has made clear to the DUP that the legislation will not be activated unless it agrees to get power-sharing at Stormont back up and running. 

The DUP has blocked the formation of a new power-sharing administration following last month’s Northern Ireland elections, as part of its ongoing protest against the Protocol.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson tonight gave a cautious welcome to the Bill published at Westminster.

He said: ‘We will obviously read that Bill with interest.

‘But I believe that finally we are now seeing the kind of action that is required to begin the process of removing the barriers to trade within the UK, to restoring Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market.’

However, Sir Jeffrey insisted he was ‘not under any pressure’ to immediately resume a power-sharing administration with Sinn Fein at Stormont.

‘Publishing the Bill doesn’t deliver anything in and of itself,’ he added.

‘But it is nonetheless an important step and we recognise that and what we want to see now is the Bill progressing in Parliament.

‘As the Bill progresses, of course, we will consider then what that means for devolution in Northern Ireland.’

This morning, Mr Johnson defended his Government’s action as ‘the right way forward’.

He told LBC: ‘What we have to respect – this is the crucial thing – is the balance and the symmetry of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

‘We have to understand there are two traditions in Northern Ireland, broadly two ways of looking at the border issues. One community at the moment feels very, very estranged from the way things are operating and very alienated.

‘We have just got to fix that. It is relatively simple to do it, it’s a bureaucratic change that needs to be made.

‘Frankly, it’s a relatively trivial set of adjustments in the grand scheme of things.’

Mr Johnson disagreed with claims that the move breaks international law, arguing that ‘our higher and prior legal commitment as a country is the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and to the balance and stability of that agreement’.

Mr Johnson said a trade war would be a ‘gross overreaction’ by Brussels.

‘All we are trying to do is simplify things, actually, to remove the barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland,’ he said.

It would be ‘preposterous’ to respond with trade restrictions ‘when all we are trying to do is have some bureaucratic simplifications between Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, the PM added. 

Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill accused Mr Johnson of ‘absolutely reckless’ and ‘disgraceful’ action that ‘does nothing to serve the interests’ of people in Northern Ireland.

‘Boris Johnson’s action is illegal, he is in clear breach of international law, regardless of the detail,’ she added.

‘He himself signed up to an agreement, he signed on the dotted line and he’s now legislating to breach that international agreement.’

Ms O’Neill claimed the PM was creating more instability and uncertainty in Northern Ireland. 

Sinn Fein's Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill accused the PM of 'absolutely reckless' and 'disgraceful' action

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson gave a cautious welcome to the legislation

Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill accused the PM of ‘absolutely reckless’ and ‘disgraceful’ action – but DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson gave a cautious welcome to the legislation

The Foreign Secretary held a call with Mr Sefcovic this morning, in which she insisted the EU 'must be willing to change the Protocol itself'

The Foreign Secretary held a call with Mr Sefcovic this morning, in which she insisted the EU ‘must be willing to change the Protocol itself’

Tory Brexiteers withheld their immediate approval for the Bill and instead convened their 'Star Chamber' of politician lawyers, chaired by senior backbencher Sir Bill Cash, to scrutinise the proposals line-by-line

Tory Brexiteers withheld their immediate approval for the Bill and instead convened their ‘Star Chamber’ of politician lawyers, chaired by senior backbencher Sir Bill Cash, to scrutinise the proposals line-by-line

In a call this morning, Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney warned Ms Truss that introducing a Bill to unilaterally amend the Protocol would breach international law and ‘deeply damage’ relationships.

The plan marked a ‘particular low point in the UK’s approach to Brexit, especially as Ms Truss has not engaged with negotiations with the EU in any meaningful way since February’, a spokesman for Mr Coveney said.

The Irish foreign minister used a Twitter post to suggest the UK was seeking to ‘deliberately ratchet up tension with an EU seeking compromise’.

As well as her talks with Mr Coveney, Ms Truss also spoke to Mr Sefcovic about the UK Government’s action.

In a sign of the UK’s frustration at Brussels’ stance, she said: ‘Our preference is a negotiated solution, but the EU must be willing to change the Protocol itself.’

UK Government sources said Ms Truss was not ‘picking a fight’ with the EU but was focused on preserving the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and Brussels’ refusal to alter the Protocol meant unilateral action was required.

Ms Truss also spoke to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken about the Bill today, with President Joe Biden’s administration having previously urged the UK Government not to rip up the Protocol. 

Following the publication of the Bill, Mr Sefcovic said in a statement: ‘Only joint solutions would create the legal certainty that people and businesses in Northern Ireland deserve.

‘It is with significant concern that we take note of today’s decision by the UK Government to table legislation disapplying core elements of the Protocol.

‘Unilateral action is damaging to mutual trust.’

He added that renegotiating the Protocol was ‘unrealistic’ and warned the UK of legal action to come.

‘No workable alternative solution has been found to this delicate, long-negotiated balance,’ Mr Sefcovic said.

‘Any renegotiation would simply bring further legal uncertainty for people and businesses in Northern Ireland.’

MLAs criticise PM’s Protocol move 

A majority of MLAs in the Stormont Assembly have signed a joint letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson stating their opposition to proposed legislation to amend the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The letter has been signed by 52 of the 90 MLAs. They represent Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Alliance Party.

Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill is among the signatories.

In a tweet she described the ‘unilateral actions of Boris Johnson’ as ‘utterly reckless’.

‘It is clearly a breach of International Law. The impact on our businesses & economy could be colossal. The pro-Protocol parties have jointly written to Boris Johnson today to firmly reject his legislation and approach,’ she tweeted.

The legislation will give ministers powers to override elements of the Protocol, which was jointly agreed by the UK and EU as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement to keep the Irish land border free-flowing.

All customs processes could be removed for goods moving within the United Kingdom and enable the frictionless movement of agri-food goods staying within the UK.

There would be a ‘green channel’ for goods bound solely for Northern Ireland, not subject to checks, and a ‘Red Channel’ for those intended for export beyond.  

It could also see businesses in Northern Ireland given the ability to choose whether to follow UK or EU regulations, depending on whom they are trading with.

Control of VAT will be maintained in Westminster to avoid the province losing out on changes for the rest of the UK.

Potentially most controversially, the government intends to ‘normalise’ the governance of the Treaty so disputes are settled by independent arbitration and the European Court of Justice has no role. That has been a key demand of Tory Brexiteers, and a major issue in the talks with the EU.

Brussels has made clear that such steps in a Bill would represent a breach of international law and could prompt retaliatory action from the bloc.

The Financial Times reported that an internal note had been circulating among Tory MPs opposed to the Bill, saying: ‘Breaking international law to rip up the Prime Minister’s own treaty is damaging to everything the UK and Conservatives stand for.’

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the Government was going ‘down the wrong track’.

‘I think the answer to this is to accept there are some problems in the way the Protocol works but they can be resolved around the negotiating table with statecraft, with guile, with trust,’ he said.

‘Unfortunately, we don’t have those in the current Prime Minister.

‘They won’t be resolved with legislation that breaches international law and that, frankly, will impede the negotiations that, in the end, will be needed to settle this.

‘So the Government is going down the wrong track here.’

Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, the party’s foreign affairs spokesperson, said: ‘It’s astounding that at exactly the moment when we should be standing united with our allies in the face of Russia’s aggression, the Conservative Government has decided to ignite a diplomatic firestorm.

‘From breaking his own laws at home to attempting to breach international law abroad, Boris Johnson has debased the office of Prime Minister.

‘If the Conservatives enact these proposals, they risk starting a trade war with our closest neighbours which will push prices up even further.

‘In the midst of this cost-of-living emergency, this is the last thing families up and down the country need.’

Trade union leaders also voiced their opposition to the Government’s plan.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘It says everything about ministers’ warped priorities that in the middle of a cost-of-living emergency, they announce legislation that could provoke a trade war and cause prices to skyrocket further.

‘Working people must not pay the price for this reckless move.

‘The Government must drop this bill, honour the agreement they signed up to and put practical solutions ahead of posturing.’



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