Northern Ireland news

Majority of Stormont MLAs reject British government's 'reckless' protocol bill

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. Picture by UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/PA Wire

THE BRITISH government has said legislation that could see it unilaterally remove parts of the protocol will restore stability at Stormont while upholding the Good Friday Agreement.

But the bill that was published last night drew an angry response from a majority of Stormont's MLAs, who urged the Tory administration to engage with Brussels to resolve concerns around the Irish Sea border.

It was reported last night that the European Union could respond to the legislation with legal action as early as tomorrow.

The widely-flagged bill sets out four areas where the British government plans to act.

It includes plans for 'green' and 'red' channels that differentiate between goods destined solely for Northern Ireland and those moving on into the EU.

There are also proposals for dual regulation that enables businesses to choose whether their produce meets UK or EU rules.

The legislation also includes plans to ensure the north's businesses can benefit from UK-wide tax breaks and spending policies, while it also seeks to end the role of the European Court of Justice as ultimate arbiter in disputes.

The British government said its preference remains for a negotiated solution to fix any problems but that the EU must be willing to change the protocol itself.

This morning, British foreign secretary Liz Truss insisted there is "absolutely no reason" why the EU should be angered by the controversial plans to override the Northern Ireland Protocol.

She told Times Radio: "Our solution doesn't make the EU any worse off. We continue to protect the single market, we're supplying the EU with data, we've got strong enforcement to make sure companies aren't violating the rules.

"So there is absolutely no reason why the EU should react in a negative way to what we're doing."

Ms Truss said the bill would "uphold" the Good Friday Agreement and support political stability in Northern Ireland.

"It will end the untenable situation where people in Northern Ireland are treated differently to the rest of the United Kingdom, protect the supremacy of our courts and our territorial integrity," she said.

“This is a reasonable, practical solution to the problems facing Northern Ireland."

She said the legislation would safeguard the EU's single market and ensure there is no hard border in Ireland.

"We are ready to deliver this through talks with the EU but we can only make progress through negotiations if the EU are willing to change the protocol itself – at the moment they aren’t," the foreign secretary said.

"In the meantime the serious situation in Northern Ireland means we cannot afford to allow the situation to drift.

“As the government of the whole United Kingdom, it is our duty to take the necessary steps to preserve peace and stability.”

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the Irish Government needed to “get real” about the problems being caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol.

He told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme: “Simon Coveney (Irish foreign minister) fails to recognise the extent of the problems that the protocol is causing for Northern Ireland.

“It is not just about trade, it is not just about the difficulties it is creating for business, it is not just about the impact this is having on the cost of living for every consumer in Northern Ireland, it is also about our political institutions.

“It is about stability. Not a single unionist MLA elected to the Assembly last month supports the protocol and without that cross-community consensus the political institutions cannot operate.

“I think the Irish Government need to get real, they need to understand the extent of the problem here and stop deluding themselves that it is some kind of minor issue.

“As for negotiations, Simon Coveney talks about sitting around the table; the problem is we’ve had two years of negotiation and no progress.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted the bill was "not a big deal".

"What we have to respect - this is the crucial thing - is the balance and the symmetry of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement," he said ahead of the bill's publication.

"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."

But in a letter to the Tory leader, a total of 52 MLAs representing Sinn Féin, Alliance and the SDLP rejected the bill, saying it was at odds with the wishes of the north's business community and a majority of the region's population.

"Whilst not ideal, the protocol currently represents the only available protections for Northern Ireland from the worst impacts of that hard Brexit," the letter said.

The MLAs said they shared the desire to see post-Brexit arrangements work as smoothly as possible, but that the best way to ensure this was through engagement with Brussels.

"It is clear that solutions are available and deliverable - as have already been delivered in the area of medicines - but this must be on the basis of trust and the rule of law rather than law breaking and unilateral abrogation of treaty obligations," the letter said.

The MLAs said they "strongly reject" the Tory leader's claim to be protecting the Good Friday Agreement.

"To complain the protocol lacks cross-community consent, while ignoring the fact that Brexit itself - let alone hard Brexit - lacks even basic majority consent here, is a grotesque act of political distortion," they said.

"Your claims to be acting to protect our institutions is as much a fabrication as the Brexit campaign claims you made in 2016."

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said it was regrettable that the British government planned to renege on an international treaty. He rejected British government claims that the EU has been inflexible and urged Downing Street to continue negotiations.

"It's very regrettable for a country like the UK to renege on an international treaty," he said.

"I think it represents a new low point because the natural expectation of democratic countries like ourselves, the UK and all across Europe is that we honour international agreements that we enter into."

Mr Martin said the agreement was ratified by British parliament and approved by Boris Johnson. He said the UK was "essentially announcing the unilateral breaching of an international agreement".

"Unilateralism does not work – unilateralism has never worked in the context of the Good Friday Agreement," the taoiseach said.

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said there would be members of the Conservative Party who will think their government's action is "abhorrent".

"I, like everybody else, have seen the concern that has been expressed within the Conservative Party at this course of action," Mr Coveney said.

"I think it does an awful lot of damage to Britain's international reputation."

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