The UK is expected to set out plans on Tuesday (17 May) to table legislation allowing it to override parts of the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol, though Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted that this was only an ‘insurance policy’.
Northern Ireland has been plunged into a political crisis over the status of the protocol. Following elections to the assembly earlier this month, the Democratic Unionist party, which came second in the polls behind Sinn Fein, which supports a united Ireland, said that they would not agree to form a new government without a solution on the protocol.
Although a clear majority of the 90 newly elected lawmakers in the Northern Ireland Assembly favour retaining the protocol in its current form, the representatives of the pro-British unionist community insist that the protocol must be either scrapped or radically reformed. Under the terms of the Good Friday peace agreement, the consent of the Nationalist and Unionist political parties is required for a power-sharing government to take office.
The protocol, which formed part of the UK’s Brexit deal with the EU, established a system of customs checks on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland to prevent a hard customs border on the island of Ireland.
However, these arrangements have effectively carved Northern Ireland out of the UK’s own internal market, which is bitterly opposed by the unionist community, which wants to remain part of the UK.
Meanwhile, the business community is divided on the issue, with a narrow majority supporting the current protocol and pointing out that it gives Northern Irish firms better access to the EU single market than the rest of the UK.
On Monday, Johnson held meetings in Belfast with the political leaders in Northern Ireland and confirmed that legislation was in the pipeline though little detail was revealed on what it would contain.
“We don’t want to scrap it. But we think it can be fixed. And actually, five of the five parties I talked to today also think it needs reform,” Johnson told broadcasters in Belfast about the protocol.
“We would love this to be done in a consensual way with our friends and partners, ironing out the problems, stopping some of these barriers east-west,” the UK Prime Minister said, adding that “to get that done, to have the insurance we need, we need to proceed with a legislative solution at the same time.
The draft bill is not expected to be tabled in the UK parliament for several months, having been left out of last week’s Queen’s speech setting out the government’s legislative agenda.
Northern Ireland’s political leaders gave a mixed reception to Johnson’s plans.
“The DUP has a mandate to see the protocol replaced with arrangements that restore our place within the UK internal market. Our mandate will be respected,” said DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.
The DUP, which supported Brexit, and the more moderate Ulster Unionist party, believe that Johnson sold out the unionist community by agreeing to the protocol despite having promised that Northern Ireland businesses would not face customs checks after Brexit.
Meanwhile, Mary Lou McDonald, the President of Sinn Fein, accused Johnson’s government of playing “a game of brinkmanship with the European institutions, indulging a section of political unionism which believes it can frustrate and hold society to ransom”.
EU officials have warned that overriding the protocol would be seen as a breach of the UK’s treaty commitments and, therefore, a breach of international law.
[Edited by Alice Taylor]