The UK is due to present plans on Tuesday (17 May) to table legislation allowing it to override parts of the controversial Northern Ireland protocol, although Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted this is not a than an “insurance policy”.
Northern Ireland is embroiled in a political crisis over the status of the protocol. Following assembly elections earlier this month, the Democratic Unionist Party, which came second in the polls behind Sinn Fein, which supports a united Ireland, said it would not agree to form a new government without a solution on the protocol.
Although a clear majority of the 90 newly elected legislators in the Northern Ireland Assembly favor keeping the protocol in its current form, representatives of the pro-British unionist community insist that the protocol must be either abandoned or radically reformed. Under the terms of the Good Friday Peace Agreement, the consent of nationalist and unionist political parties is required for a power-sharing government to take office.
The protocol, which was part of the UK’s Brexit deal with the EU, established a system of customs checks on goods traveling from Britain to Northern Ireland to prevent a border tough customs on the island of Ireland.
However, these arrangements have effectively severed Northern Ireland from the UK’s own internal market, which is fiercely opposed by the Unionist community, which wishes to remain in the UK.
Meanwhile, the business community is divided on the issue, with a narrow majority supporting the current protocol and stressing that it gives Northern Irish businesses better access to the EU single market than to the rest of the UK. .
On Monday, Johnson held meetings in Belfast with Northern Ireland’s political leaders and confirmed legislation was in the works, although few details were revealed about what it would contain.
“We don’t want to scrap it. But we think it can be fixed. And in fact, five of the five parties I spoke to today also think it needs reform,’ Johnson told Belfast broadcasters of the protocol.
“We would like to see this done in a consensual way with our friends and partners, ironing out the issues, stopping some of these east-west barriers,” said the British Prime Minister, adding that “to achieve this, having the assurance that we need, we must at the same time proceed with a legislative solution.
The bill is not expected to be introduced in the UK Parliament for several months, having been omitted from last week’s Queen’s Speech setting out the government’s legislative agenda.
Political leaders in Northern Ireland have given Johnson’s plans a mixed reception.
“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 backed Brexit, and the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party, believe Johnson sold out the Unionist community by agreeing to the protocol when he promised businesses in Northern Ireland would not be subject customs checks after Brexit.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein chair Mary Lou McDonald accused the Johnson government of playing “a tightrope game with the European institutions, indulging in a part of political unionism that believes it can frustrate and ransom the society”.
EU officials have warned that failure to comply with 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]