LONDON (CN) — The British government has unveiled fresh legislation that would override key parts of the post-Brexit trade treaty it signed with the European Union just over two years ago, in a bold move that has provoked the ire of European leaders.
Teeing up yet another round of brinkmanship with the EU, the British government argues that if they cannot negotiate a solution to the issue of the Northern Ireland protocol, which has caused consternation among the territory's unionist community for imposing customs checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea, then it is prepared to take unilateral action to end the arrangement.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Britain had a “necessity to act” if a negotiated solution could not be found. But Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney slammed the British approach, saying it would “send headlines around the world that Britain is prepared to break international law.”
The Northern Ireland protocol was the end result of tireless negotiations between the EU and the United Kingdom throughout 2018 and 2019. It sought to craft a post-Brexit arrangement which respected the requirements of the 1998 Belfast Agreement, an international treaty that brought an end to conflict in Northern Ireland.
The peace agreement states that there can be no physical border between Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. But after Brexit, the U.K. was determined to exit the EU regulatory sphere, leaving the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a de facto internal customs border.
The Irish Sea border is anathema to much of the unionist community who seek to maintain close ties with Britain, and the hardline Democratic Unionist Party, or DUP, has collapsed Northern Ireland’s delicate power-sharing institutions, pledging not to restore governance until the protocol is scrapped.
Speaking last week, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said “decisive action” was needed on the protocol. He added that if the British government and EU were “serious about protecting the political institutions, and the Belfast Agreement, and its successor agreements, and the basis of political progress and stability in Northern Ireland, then they know what they need to do.”
“Power sharing can only be restored on the basis of consensus,” he added. “There is not unionist consent for this protocol.”
Mary Lou McDonald, leader of pro-Irish unity party Sinn Féin – which won a historic victory in this month’s Northern Ireland elections – spoke with exasperation after the DUP vetoed the restoration of governance. “The British government is playing a game of brinkmanship with the European institutions, indulging a section of political unionism … which believes it can hold society to ransom,” McDonald said.
“The notion that in the mother of all parliaments, as it boasts, that there would be attempt to legislate, to break international law, is shocking, it is breathtaking, and we find ourselves astounded that members of the House of Commons would even countenance such a proposal," he said.
Northern Ireland’s first minister-elect, Michelle O’Neill, agreed, adding, “What Boris Johnson is promising the DUP is nonsense, and is madness.”
Announcing the draft legislation in Parliament on Tuesday, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss publicly outlined the government’s proposals for the first time.
The primary British idea is to implement separate “green” and “red” channels for goods crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. The “red” goods are those identified as continuing on to the Republic of Ireland, thus entering the EU, and so would be subject to the same checks as presently. But the “green” goods would be those that are remaining in Northern Ireland, not entering the EU, and thus would not be subject to checks.