Monday, May 16, 2022

By David Young and David Hughes, PA

A British government move to unilaterally override the Northern Ireland Protocol could endanger the wider Brexit trade deal, the Minister for Foreign Affairs has warned.

Simon Coveney urged Boris Johnson to commit to further engagement with the EU to resolve the Irish Sea trading dispute, rather than breaking international law by acting alone.

Tensions between London and Brussels are intensifying over the prospect of Mr Johnson using domestic legislation at Westminster to nullify parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement that require checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

British foreign secretary Liz Truss is expected to formally announce a plan to legislate on the protocol on Tuesday, although an actual parliamentary Bill is not expected to be published at that point.

Regional cabinet meeting – Staffordshire
British prime minister Boris Johnson is visiting Northern Ireland on Monday. Photo: PA

Mr Coveney’s comments came ahead of Mr Johnson’s visit to Northern Ireland on Monday for emergency talks with Stormont’s political leaders in a bid to break a deadlock caused by the protocol.

The power-sharing institutions in Belfast have been plunged into crisis in the wake of the recent Assembly election, with the DUP refusing to re-enter a devolved government in protest at trading arrangements the party claims are undermining the union.

The EU has made clear that unilateral action from the UK to walk away from the protocol deal would represent a clear breach of international law.

Mr Coveney, who was in Brussels on Monday, warned that the entire UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement deal – the TCA – could be jeopardised if Mr Johnson takes unilateral action on the protocol.

“This is a time for calmness, it’s a time for dialogue, it’s a time for compromise and partnership between the EU and the UK to solve these outstanding issues,” he told reporters.

“If that is the approach taken by the British government then we can make significant progress and we can make progress quickly to respond to the concerns of both the business community and the unionist community in Northern Ireland.

“That alternative is unilateral action which means tension, rancour, stand-offs, legal challenges and of course calls into question the functioning of the TCA itself, because the TCA and the Withdrawal Agreement are interlinked, they rely on each other.

“That is the last thing Europe needs right now, when we are working so well together in the face of Russian aggression and responding to the support needed for Ukraine at this time.”

Johnson visit

Prior to his visit to the North, where he will hold talks with the five main parties at Hillsborough Castle, Mr Johnson insisted he did not favour scrapping the protocol, rather amending it to reduce disruption on Irish Sea trade.

The 1998 Good Friday peace agreement contains provisions to protect and develop relations both on a north/south basis on the island of Ireland and on an east/west basis between the island and Great Britain.

Mr Johnson claims the protocol has upset this “delicate balance” of unionist and nationalist aspirations by undermining the east/west dynamic.

In an article in the Belfast Telegraph, Mr Johnson said the UK will have a “necessity to act” if the EU is unwilling to reach a compromise in the deepening row over the protocol.

However, he stressed the Government remained open to “genuine dialogue” with the European Commission.

He said the protocol had been negotiated in “good faith”, adding that “those who want to scrap the protocol, rather than seeking changes, are focusing on the wrong thing”.

Contention over the protocol will not be the sole focus of Mr Johnson on Monday as he will also use his visit to pledge delivery of three pre-existing commitments: a stalled language and culture package; ensuring women and girls have full access to abortion services; and introducing new measures to deal with the legacy of the past.

The protocol, agreed by the UK and EU to maintain free-flowing trade across the Border, requires customs and regulatory checks on the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland.

British foreign secretary Liz Truss is expected to outline plans to legislate on the protocol on Tuesday. Photo: PA

It has been the source of resentment and anger among many unionists and loyalists who believe the arrangements have weakened the North’s place in the union.

However, a majority of MLAs in Stormont’s newly elected Assembly represent parties that support retaining the protocol, claiming that it offers Northern Ireland some protection from the negative economic consequences of Brexit.

They point to the unfettered access Northern Ireland traders have to sell into the EU single market as a key benefit of the protocol.

The new Assembly has been unable to convene due to the DUP’s refusal to engage in the institutions until major changes to the protocol are secured.

The Stormont election saw Sinn Féin displace the DUP to become the overall largest party in the North for the first time.

The DUP remains the largest unionist party in the region and, under Stormont rules, a new executive cannot be formed unless it agrees to nominate to the post of deputy First Minister.

The DUP has also blocked the nomination of a new Assembly speaker, meaning the legislature in Belfast cannot meet while the impasse continues.

The party has made clear it needs action rather than words on the protocol from Mr Johnson before a return to power-sharing can be countenanced.

Sinn Féin, which is now entitled to the First Minister’s role, has accused the DUP of holding the people of the North to ransom by not allowing Stormont to function in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis.

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