Boris Johnson has defended his plan to effectively override parts of the Brexit deal he agreed with the EU, insisting that legislation to amend arrangements in Northern Ireland was “not a big deal”.
Britain’s prime minister was warned by Dublin that introducing a Bill to alter the Northern Ireland Protocol unilaterally would “deeply damage” relations with the EU and Ireland.
The legislation will give ministers powers to override elements of the protocol, which was agreed to by the UK and the EU as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement to prevent a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The deal stipulates that regulatory checks and customs declarations must be carried out on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Mr Johnson said resolving the protocol is “relatively simple” as he defended the legislation to effectively override parts of the international treaty as a “bureaucratic change”.
“It is the right way forward. What we have to respect — this is the crucial thing — is the balance and the symmetry of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement,” he told LBC Radio.
“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 is a bureaucratic change that needs to be made.
“Frankly, it is a relatively trivial set of adjustments in the grand scheme of things.”
He also said a trade war between the EU and the UK over changes to the post-Brexit arrangements would be a “gross overreaction” by Brussels.
“All we are trying to do is simplify things, actually, to remove the barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland,” he said.
He said it would be “preposterous” for the EU to respond with trade restrictions “when all we are trying to do is have some bureaucratic simplifications between Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.
The prime minister disagreed with claims that the move breaks international law, arguing that “our higher and prior legal commitment as a country is the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and to the balance and stability of that agreement”.
Unionists in Northern Ireland are opposed to the terms of the Brexit deal, claiming they have undermined the region’s place in the UK. In protest, the Democratic Unionist party in Northern Ireland blocked the formation of a power-sharing government at Stormont following last month’s assembly election.
The Bill due to come before Parliament could result in the government moving without the consent of the EU to change the terms of the Protocol. This could include allowing ministers to remove all customs processes for goods moving within the UK and enable the frictionless movement of agricultural goods within the UK.
It could also result in businesses in Northern Ireland being given the ability to choose whether to follow UK or EU regulations, depending on with whom they are trading.
Ireland’s foreign affairs minister said introducing the Bill would “deeply damage” relations between the UK and Ireland, together with its EU partners.
Simon Coveney spoke by phone to Foreign Secretary Liz Truss at the request of the UK Foreign Office on Monday morning.
During the call, which lasted 12 minutes, Ms Truss outlined her intention to publish the legislation on Monday.
The UK remained open to negotiations with the EU “but we cannot wait to fix the issues facing the people of NI”, she said in a tweet.
Mr Coveney said if the UK government pushed ahead with its plan, it would “ratchet up tension” with the EU. “UK gov't now proposing to set aside int law, reject a partnership approach, ignore majority in NI and deliberately ratchet up tension with an EU seeking compromise,” he tweeted. “We remain open to dialogue to find agreement but his approach adds to instability and is no fix.”
A spokesman for Mr Coveney said he told Ms Truss that publishing the bill would be “deeply damaging to relationships on these islands and between the UK and EU”.
“Mr Coveney said it marks a particular low point in the UK’s approach to Brexit, especially as Ms Truss has not engaged with negotiations with the EU in any meaningful way since February,” the representative said.
“Mr Coveney repeated that the protocol is the negotiated solution, ratified by Westminster, to the hard Brexit pursued by the UK government.
“The UK’s unilateral approach is not in the best interest of Northern Ireland and does not have the consent or support of the majority of people or business in Northern Ireland. Far from fixing problems, this legislation will create a whole new set of uncertainties and damage relationships.”
The EU has made it clear that overriding the Protocol would represent a breach of international law and could prompt retaliatory action from the bloc.
Ms Truss also had a call with European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic to discuss the coming legislation. After their chat, she stressed that the EU “must be willing to change the protocol itself”.
Mr Sefcovic also used Twitter after the call to say the EU “has always paid utmost attention to the impact Brexit has on NI, offering workable solutions”. He issued a warning that “unilateral action is damaging to mutual trust and a formula for uncertainty”.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis insisted the legislation is “lawful” and “correct”, and said he hoped it would persuade the DUP to support the re-establishment of the Stormont institutions.
He said the government would set out its legal position on the bill when the legislation is introduced to Parliament on Monday.
“What we are going to do is lawful and it is correct,” Mr Lewis told Sky News on Sunday.
“We will be setting out our legal position on this. People will see that what we are proposing resolves the key issues within the protocol that don’t work.”
While Mr Lewis committed to publishing the government’s position on the matter, he insisted “governments don’t publish details behind advice given to ministers”.
Downing Street has said it will share with the public only “a summary” of the legal advice it received, which has led to accusations of a cover-up.
“The bill has been agreed by the relevant Cabinet committees and will be introduced to Parliament on Monday,” a Downing Street spokesman said on Friday.
“We will, alongside the bill, publish a summary of the legal advice.”
Labour accused the government of breaking the law, while there were also signs of opposition within the Conservative ranks.
An internal note has been circulating among Tories opposed to the Bill, the Financial Times reported.
“Breaking international law to rip up the prime minister’s own treaty is damaging to everything the UK and Conservatives stand for,” the note said.
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said “it does look like the government plans to break international law”.
“This government seems to be developing a record for law-breaking and it is not one that the Labour Party can support,” Ms Reeves said.
Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Kyle, said it was “incumbent on ministers” to release the maximum possible legal advice, with “transparency about its origins”.
Liberal Democrat Northern Ireland spokesman Alistair Carmichael said the public deserved “full transparency” over the plan’s legal basis, warning he suspected a cover-up.