Lewis says Northern Ireland protocol ‘not working’ as Truss prepares to act

The introduction of legislation suspending parts of the Northern Ireland protocol was “never considered” this week, according to a Cabinet minister.

After Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is expected to announce national legislation which, if passed, would overwrite elements of the Brexit treaty with the European Union.

But with Ms Truss planning for the Commons to announce her intention to bring the bill forward in a bid to restore power-sharing to Stormont, the bill could be delayed until the summer.

What we’ve always said is we won’t take anything off the table

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis

The bill had been strongly tipped to be introduced in Parliament on Tuesday, but Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, said the UK government had no plans to introduce anything this week in because of the ongoing debates over the Queen’s Speech.

But he argued the protocol ‘isn’t working properly’ and said ministers ‘wouldn’t take anything off the table’ when it came to resolving border issues.

He told Sky News: “Something like this this week was never planned.

“But what we’ve always said is that we won’t take anything off the table.”

The UK wants to solve the problems “through an agreement with the EU”, Mr Lewis said.

But he warned “we reserve the right to do what we have to do” to deal with the tensions caused by the protocol.

The protocol, which was brokered by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as part of the Withdrawal Agreement, is designed to prevent a hard border in Ireland after Britain left the EU to protect the deal from peace brokered in 1998 after decades of sectarian violence.

The terms effectively keep Northern Ireland in the EU’s single goods market and create a hard border along the Irish Sea.

But since the deal was signed, ministers have complained that Brussels has insisted on too strict checks on goods traveling between Britain and Northern Ireland, disrupting trade and creating community tensions.

Marks & Spencer chairman Archie Norman said the EU’s proposals for administering the protocol are “very bureaucratic and quite unnecessary” given that UK food standards are “equivalent or better” than those set by Brussels.

The former Tory MP told BBC Radio 4’s Today program that the bloc suggests the same background checks, including veterinary checks, required for the Republic of Ireland are also required to send goods from other parts of the UK to Northern Ireland.

“Incidentally, that means every piece of butter in a sandwich has to have an EU veterinary certificate, so it’s very bureaucratic and quite unnecessary,” he said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson traveled to Northern Ireland to discuss the protocol with political leaders on Monday (Liam McBurney/PA)

(PA wire)

The British government is advocating for the establishment of “green lanes” in which goods traveling between GB and NI and not intended to go to the Republic of Ireland would not be subject to the same level of control as those entering the territory of the EU.

Mr Lewis said EU proposals to lift grace periods, meaning comprehensive controls are not in place, are “unsustainable” and would “make matters significantly worse”.

He said Brussels’ interpretation of the protocol went against its fundamental principles by failing to respect the UK’s internal markets and causing friction that prevented Northern Ireland from forming a new executive.

The dispute over the treaty has created a stalemate in efforts to form a devolved government administration in Belfast, with the Democratic Unionist Party refusing to join an executive unless its concerns over the arrangements are resolved.

A majority of MPs in the newly elected Stormont Assembly represent parties that support keeping the protocol, with many saying the arrangement offers the region some protection against some of the negative economic consequences of Brexit.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is due to make a statement in the House of Commons (Victoria Jones/PA)

(PA wire)

They also point out that unhindered access for traders from Northern Ireland to sell in the EU single market is a key benefit of the protocol.

A Foreign Office source said Ms Truss’ priority was to stick to the Good Friday Agreement and denied she was trying to “fight” with Brussels.

There are fears that the decision to unilaterally rewrite parts of the deal could risk a trade war with the EU during a cost of living crisis.

The PA news agency understands that Ms Truss’ ambition is to table legislation dealing with the issues created by the protocol in Parliament within weeks – and certainly before the summer.

But the overwhelming preference is believed to remain a negotiated solution.

The Global Britain (Strategy) Committee, which considers issues relating to the UK’s trade priorities, met on Tuesday, followed by the full Cabinet, with Ms Truss due to make a statement in the House of Commons.

The European Commission has urged Britain to start talks on the bloc’s proposals on the protocol as “a much better route than engaging unilaterally”.

Daniel Ferrie, a Commission spokesman, told reporters in Brussels that the EU package offered during negotiations in October was “not a take-it-or-leave-it offer”.

“Vice President (Maros Sefcovic) himself said in his statement on Thursday that we had made it clear that there was still potential to be explored in our proposals,” he said.

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