Liz Truss, the UK’s foreign secretary, has announced plans to rip up parts of Britain’s Brexit deal on Northern Ireland, insisting the unilateral move did not break international law and would help maintain peace in the region.
Truss told MPs that legislation to rewrite parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, part of Boris Johnson’s 2019 Brexit deal with the EU, would be introduced “in the coming weeks”.
The move received a hostile reaction from the EU, and one Conservative MP said it was “extraordinary” that Johnson’s government was willing to ride roughshod over an international agreement.
Truss told MPs that her preference was to reach a negotiated deal with Brussels to “fix” the protocol, which imposes checks on goods trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to avoid a trade border on the island of Ireland, but she said the government would pass the law if necessary.
Maroš Šefčovič, European Commission vice-president, said there were “significant concerns” about the plan. “Unilateral actions are not acceptable,” he added, saying that “should the UK decide to move ahead with a bill disapplying constitutive elements of the protocol as announced today by the UK government, the EU will need to respond with all measures at its disposal”.
The Democratic Unionist party, the biggest of the pro-UK unionist parties in Northern Ireland, has refused to take part in a power-sharing government unless the protocol is completely overhauled.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the DUP, said Truss’s announcement was “a good start” and a “significant move” to help restart the Stormont executive, but he added: “Actions speak louder than words.”
Donaldson promised the DUP would take a “graduated and cautious approach” as legislation passed through parliament, suggesting his party would slowly lift its blockade at Stormont. Unless the DUP agrees to join the power-sharing executive, Northern Ireland will be left without a government in the midst of a cost of living crisis and with public services under intense strain.
Truss’s allies said Donaldson’s comments sounded “promising”, and they categorically denied speculation in Whitehall that the DUP had been involved in the drafting or approving of her House of Commons statement.
Simon Hoare, Tory chair of the Commons Northern Ireland committee, said that Conservative governments were usually noted for their respect of the rule of law and it was “extraordinary” that Truss needed reminding of this.
Mary Lou McDonald, president of nationalist party Sinn Féin, blasted the UK government’s intention to “legislate to break the law”. She wrote on Twitter that the intention to rip up an international trade deal was “the stuff of a rogue state”.
But Truss insisted: “We are clear this bill is legal in international law and we will set out the legal position in due course.”
Ministers argue that the operation of the protocol is undermining the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which has provided the basis of peace and power sharing between Northern Ireland’s two communities.
Truss argued that, after 18 months of talks, the EU remained unwilling to reopen the protocol. She said she hoped the bloc would be more flexible and that the text could be improved without unilateral UK action.
The proposed new law would simplify checks on the Irish Sea; a check-free green lane would operate for goods staying in Northern Ireland, while a red lane would mean full checks were applied to products moving into Ireland and the EU’s single market.
Truss said tough new fines would be introduced for anyone breaking the rules. “We are clear the EU will not be negatively impacted in any way,” she added.
The legislation would also give Britain more control over issues of tax and subsidy control, as well as enforcement of the agreement, including by reducing the role of the European Court of Justice.
Truss said she hoped to have formal talks in London soon with Šefčovič, her EU opposite number. Although there is anger in Brussels over the British plan, the EU is expected to put on hold any possible trade reprisals.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, expressed “deep concern” at the UK’s decision to legislate to disapply parts of the protocol over the wishes of Northern Ireland’s people and said the problems could be fixed within concessions the EU had already put forward.
“Such unilateral action in respect of an internationally binding agreement is damaging to trust and will serve only to make it more challenging to find solutions to the genuine concerns that people in Northern Ireland have about how the protocol is being implemented,” he added in a statement.