Boris Johnson’s government is threatening to tear up the Northern Ireland protocol unless the EU agrees to ditch border checks soon, despite warnings the row could spark a “horrific” trade war.
The Independent understands that foreign secretary Liz Truss is pushing for unilateral action unless there is a quick and significant change in stance by Brussels to remove checks on goods agreed in the Brexit withdrawal deal.
A Foreign Office source said a compromise appeared unlikely after European Commission negotiator Maros Sefcovic recently made clear in a call to Ms Truss that the EU could not go beyond its existing proposals to ease only some checks.
Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis – who heads to Stormont on Monday for crisis talks after Sinn Fein’s history election victory – suggested that the government was ready to “do what we need to do” to override the protocol.
Mr Lewis denied that the government was “dancing to the DUP’s tune”, with the unionist party refusing to enter into power-sharing arrangements with Sinn Fein until Downing Street scraps the protocol checks on goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland.
“It is really frustrating that the EU have not shown the flexibility we need to see to get that resolution,” Mr Lewis told Sky News on Sunday.
On the prospect of legislation to override the protocol, Mr Lewis added: “We’ve always said we take nothing from the table, and that hasn’t changed. We will do what we need to do… There is a point we will have to make some decisions.”
The Republic of Ireland government urged all parties to work together to re-establish a power-sharing executive after Sinn Fein emerged the largest party at the Stormont assembly for the first time.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said the EU “has been willing to show a lot of flexibility over the last 12 months to try and find a basis for agreement”.
Mr Coveney added: “We don’t need threats of unilateral action, unilateral legislation in Westminster. What we need is partnership and intense negotiations to try and finally settle the issues around the protocol without dismantling an international treaty.”
With the EU unlikely to give into threats, UK food industry bosses told The Independent they fear that a trade war would lead to a further spike in supermarket prices, just as families are struggling to cope with soaring living costs.
The EU Commission is prepared to take retaliatory trade action if No 10 tears up its commitment to uphold the protocol, say legal experts – including moves to slap tariffs on British goods.
“The EU might take legal action initially, but there could be some punitive measures. If we end up with tariffs being applied on goods then that would be horrific. It will push up costs and prices,” said the British Meat Processors Association’s trade policy adviser Peter Hardwick.
Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, said he expected a “ratcheting up” in the UK-EU row. “Tariffs would be a huge step backwards. They would add significantly inflationary pressure to costs at all levels, through to the end consumer.”
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has not confirmed if his party will nominate deputy first minister, with Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill expected to be put forward for first minister post. Nominations are supposed to take place on Thursday.
Ms O’Neill has urged the DUP to “work together” at Stormont. But Sir Jeffrey suggested the party would not cooperate until No 10 acted on the protocol. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, the DUP leader stated: “No more words. It’s time for action. The Irish Sea border must go and the protocol must be replaced.”
Results from the election mean a majority of elected representatives are in favor of keeping the protocol, aimed at preventing a hard border on the island of Ireland. Only 37 unionists in the new 90-seat assembly are hostile.
However, deputy prime minister Dominic Raab claimed that stability in Northern Ireland was being “put at risk” by the protocol – telling Sky News that the government would take “whatever measures are necessary” to address the checks hated by unionists.
Northern Ireland stability ‘in peril’ unless protocol ditched, says Dominic Raab
He and Mr Lewis refused to say whether a bill to tear up the protocol would be included in Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech. But The Independent understands the legislation could be introduced later in the parliamentary session.
Meanwhile, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald stepped up her push for a referendum on the reunification of Ireland, a move which would require the consent of the UK and Republic of Ireland governments.
The Republican party leader told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend that it was time to start an Ireland-wide “citizens’ assembly” to discuss how a border poll might work. She said a reunification vote “will happen” over the course of the next decade.
But Mr Lewis and Mr Raab appeared to rule out the idea of a border poll – pointing to the fact there was still a majority of seats in the assembly for parties opposed to constitutional change, despite Sinn Fein’s success.
A spokesperson for the EU Commission told The Independent the intention was to “continue working” on solutions on protocol trade barriers, adding: “We fully committed to working jointly with the UK to bring long-term legal certainty and predictability to Northern Ireland.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.