Boris Johnson is set to greenlight controversial Northern Ireland protocol legislation this week as he flies to Belfast for crucial meetings, betting the move will restart stalled talks.
The prime minister warned that there was a “need for action” if negotiations with the EU were not resumed and said new measures would be presented to parliament in the coming days.
It comes as it emerged that Northern Ireland business leaders urged Johnson not to take any unilateral action in a private letter to Downing Street.
A source confirmed that the letter from Northern Ireland’s business Brexit task force, an umbrella organization of 14 business bodies, told the prime minister there was a chance of a deal with the EU.
“It was suggested that action was needed because business groups were asking for it and trade was suffering because of the protocol. We specifically ask you not to take any unilateral action. We don’t need the nuclear option when we believe there is still a chance of a deal,” the source said.
They said it was surprising that Johnson flew to Northern Ireland threatening unilateral action and not meeting with the group, despite their pleas, adding that the government had shown scant interest in business, with a 15-minute Zoom call with Liz Truss in January and no engagements since.
Business groups say they are perplexed by government statements listing issues that have already been resolved or are close to being resolved.
Amid fraying relations between the prime minister and Truss, Johnson will stress the need for moderate language to his foreign secretary. However, he is still willing to endorse his preferred tactic for new legislation that would override parts of the protocol to remove checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.
Truss has prepared a bill that gives the government the right to suspend elements of the Brexit deal related to Northern Ireland, a move the EU has warned could trigger a trade war.
Measures in the bill are expected to include a new “green lane” for goods sold only in Northern Ireland and tougher penalties for those smuggled into the EU through the Republic.
Ahead of crucial talks with the parties at Stormont, Johnson said circumstances had fundamentally changed since the deal was signed. “It was designed in the absence of a trade and cooperation agreement and when it was not clear one would be agreed upon. It has not been adapted to reflect the realities of the TCA.
“It was designed before a global pandemic and a European war that has created a cost-of-living crisis on a scale not seen in half a century.”
Johnson said in the opinion piece for the Belfast Telegraph that there could “not even be a doubt” about the rapid availability of medicines in Northern Ireland nor was it fair that the chancellor could not give people in Northern Ireland the same benefits. taxes and VAT. .”
He said negotiations remained deadlocked as the EU claimed it was “impossible to make the changes in the protocol text to really resolve these issues in the negotiations, because there is no mandate to do so.”
One official said they expected the deadline for the new legislation to be pushed back to allow diplomatic efforts to resume. Another Whitehall official acknowledged that the legislation was “several weeks” away from being formally presented to MPs. Dozens of Conservative MPs have suggested they would vote against a bill in its final stages.
A Whitehall source said they recognized that last week’s internal information war, which had split the cabinet and thrown internal choreography into crisis, had not been helpful with a decades-long peace process at stake.
“The priority tomorrow is to calm things down,” they said. The source suggested that Johnson would tell Truss to handle things more delicately.
Sources close to Truss have denied that his team leaked details of the planned legislation and say they have not been responsible for some of the more inflammatory rhetoric, which they say has angered the foreign secretary.
“The ideal solution is that we solve the problems with the protocol with the EU and through a negotiated solution and that the executive function again,” said a government source.
“If they are not willing to show flexibility, it is our responsibility as a government to look at other options. [Truss] he is in favor of considering legislation as a way of doing this. But there is a difference between giving us the powers to do something and then doing something.”
The No. 10 said Johnson’s priority was to restore conditions for negotiations, claiming he had a “conciliatory” call with Ireland’s taoiseach last week. However, the Irish Times reported on Saturday that sources described it as “the worst call I’ve ever made.” [Martin] has ever had with anyone.”
Johnson is expected to meet Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin in Belfast on Monday. The DUP blocked a speaker election in Stormont on Friday, meaning the assembly cannot function after elections saw Sinn Féin become the largest party.
Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill, who is the prime minister designate, said she would warn Johnson that any unilateral action to deviate from the protocol would be “reckless” and “deepen political instability”.
“Any threat of unilateral action by the British government to denounce the withdrawal agreement, or disapply the protocol, would be reckless. Waiving international obligations would also represent a heinous attack on the international rule of law,” he said.
“Only through a joint agreement with the EU can problems or concerns be resolved. I will tell Boris Johnson that unilateral action deepens political instability and economic uncertainty and must not happen.”
On Sunday, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said the UK had “the right to act in a sovereign manner” and to “reopen or re-examine the protocol”, but denied that the actions constituted a breach of international law.
Johnson has previously vowed not to scrap the protocol, saying he is only seeking reform that has “the widest possible support among communities.”
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, “criticized the saber rattling and bragging” of ministers over the past week. Johnson has already been told that dozens of Conservative MPs would try to prevent the bill from becoming law if it reaches the later stages, although many see it as a negotiating ploy.
Coveney said the behavior of the UK ministers was “creating a lot of tension in my country, its closest neighbour, and also potentially on the verge of taking a decision that could fundamentally undermine the functioning of the institutions of the peace process in Ireland from North”. .
He told Sophy Ridge on Sky News on Sunday that relations between Britain and Ireland were fundamentally souring because of “unhelpful reports we’re getting from very, very high levels within the British government this week.”
Coveney said the EU had not threatened any specific retaliation, although several MEPs have said there will be consequences, including possible suspension of the trade deal, if the UK government acts unilaterally.
“There is no way the EU will engage if the UK threatens to take unilateral action to pass domestic legislation that sidesteps international obligations under an international treaty that, let us not forget, the UK was the lead designer alongside. with the EU,” he said. .