Boris Johnson has signalled that his plan to effectively tear up parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol could be law by the end of the year.
The British prime minister, who is attending the G7 summit in Germany alongside EU leaders, said “the interesting thing is how little this conversation is being had, certainly here” – indicating he is not expecting a major diplomatic row over the government’s plans.
MPs are set to vote later today on controversial new legislation to give ministers powers to override parts of the post-Brexit deal on Northern Ireland.
Mr Johnson said the plan could be carried out “fairly rapidly”, with the proposals in law by the end of the year.
His administration has argued that the measures to remove checks on goods and animal and plant products travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland are necessary to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement and peace and stability.
“What we are trying to do is fix something that I think is very important to our country, which is the balance of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement,” he told reporters.
“You have got one tradition, one community, that feels that things really aren’t working in a way that they like or understand, you’ve got unnecessary barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“All we are saying is you can get rid of those whilst not in any way endangering the EU single market.”
Asked if the measures could be in place this year, he said: “Yes, I think we could do it very fast, Parliament willing.”
He said it would be “even better” if we could “get some of that flexibility we need in our conversations with Maros Sefcovic”, the European Commission vice-president,
He added: “We remain optimistic.”
Taoiseach Micheál Martin has rejected Boris Johnson’s assertion that he does not see a major diplomatic row erupting over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Speaking in Dublin on Monday, Mr Martin said: “That, in my view, doesn’t stack up in the sense that any unilateral decision to breach international law is a major serious development.
“There can be no getting out of that. One cannot trivialise the breaching of an international agreement between the UK Government and the EU.
“My concern is a trend towards unilateralism that is emanating from the UK Government.
“We had it on the protocol, we had it on legacy issues, we have it now in terms of the application of the decision of European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in terms of domestic British law.
“We know that the Good Friday Agreement incorporates protections under the human rights convention and that is something we will keep a close eye on.
“I have been in touch with the President of the European Commission and the President of the European Council, and they are concerned about this.
“They are conscious that similar efforts were made last year but this is not a good move by the British Government and it has to accept that unilateralism does not work in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, or in the context of good relationships with your neighbours and the EU.”
Unionist opposition to the imposition of checks has seen the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refuse to return to the powersharing Executive, leaving the region without a functioning government.
The UK has insisted that its unilateral approach is the only option left to resolve the issues “baked in” to the protocol if the EU maintains its refusal fundamentally to rewrite the terms of the deal.
But the move has sparked a fierce backlash from the bloc, with fresh legal action launched against Britain last week.
Mr Sefcovic indicated that further measures could follow if the UK presses ahead with the Bill.
The dispute could ultimately lead to a trade war, with tariffs or even the suspension of the entire Brexit deal between the UK and EU.
As the Bill returns to Parliament for its second reading on Monday, MPs will debate its main principles and decide whether it can proceed for further consideration.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will tell the Commons the legislation is a basis for a durable and sustainable solution that protects the Good Friday Agreement, avoids a hard border, safeguards the EU single market and ensures the integrity of the UK.
However, she is likely to be met with a backlash from those who oppose the move.
Ms Truss tweeted this morning that the legislation will “fix the problems” that the post-Brexit arrangements in the region have caused.
“It will fix problems the Protocol has created in Northern Ireland & uphold the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
“Our preference remains a negotiated outcome, but EU continues to rule out change to Protocol.”
Sir Keir Starmer has said Labour would axe the proposed laws if it was in power, and confirmed his party will vote against the legislation at Westminster.
Alongside the second reading, the Government is launching a series of “structured engagements” with the business community to discuss and gather views on the Bill’s implementation.
The Foreign Office is hosting the first roundtable event on Monday, bringing together more than a dozen major UK businesses and representative groups including the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, Asda, John Lewis and the Dairy Council for Northern Ireland.
Ms Truss said: “Our overriding priority is protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, the bedrock of peace and stability in Northern Ireland – as it stands the protocol is undermining this delicate balance.
“This legislation will fix the problems the protocol has created, ensuring that goods can flow freely within the UK, while avoiding a hard border and safeguarding the EU single market.
“A negotiated solution has been and remains our preference, but the EU continues to rule out changing the protocol itself – even though it is patently causing serious problems in Northern Ireland – which therefore means we are obliged to act.”
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson again declined to put a timetable on the DUP returning to power-sharing arrangements at Stormont ahead of the debate on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.
Speaking to reporters, the DUP leader said his party would “consider what steps we can take” once the Bill passed the House of Commons.
He added: “I have made clear that we will be condition-led, not calendar-led, and that we want to see real progress with this Bill, and that’s our message today to the House of Commons.”
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane branded the British government’s plans “shameful” and said they will mean “more instability” for the north.
He told BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster programme: “It’s very interesting that we are watching a sovereign Parliament debating whether to continue a breach of international law or not.
“As I’ve said, and I think as many others have said, on numerous occasions, the introduction of this Bill is shameful. It provides nothing but more instability, especially for people here, especially for our industries and sectors here.
“So the British government seem to be tone deaf to the majority of the wishes of people here in continuing to push ahead with this legislation.”