Some of the European Union’s proposals on the Northern Ireland Protocol would “take us backwards”, Liz Truss has claimed, in a seeming bid to set the stage for the UK to take unilateral action on the post-Brexit treaty.
Dismissing the ideas set out by the bloc in October aimed at resolving the problems with the protocol, the foreign secretary warned on Tuesday that “the answer cannot be more checks, paperwork and disruption”.
After the government used the Queen’s Speech to declare its continued negotiations with Brussels would not “stand in the way of protecting peace and stability in Northern Ireland”, EU commissioner Maros Sefcovic responded that “renegotiation is not an option” – and urged London to match Brussels’ “determination and creativity” to finalise solutions to the dispute.
But in her statement, issued hours later, Ms Truss said “the current EU proposals fail to properly address the real issues affecting Northern Ireland and in some cases would take us backward.
“Prices have risen, trade is being badly disrupted, and the people of Northern Ireland are subject to different laws and taxes than those over the Irish Sea, which has left them without an executive and poses a threat to peace and stability.”
Ms Truss added: “Our preference has always been for a negotiated solution but will not shy away from taking action to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland if solutions cannot be found.”
Her comments came just hours after Tory former prime minister Theresa May cautioned Boris Johnson over taking any unilateral action on the protocol, urging him to consider the “wider sense of what such a move would say about the UK and its willingness to abide by treaties which it has signed”.
Intervening on Ms May’s speech in the Commons, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson insisted that the protocol “needs to be dealt with” and was “undermining political stability in Northern Ireland”.
Pressure over the protocol has come to a head in the wake of the local May elections, which saw the DUP come second in Northern Ireland behind the nationalist Sinn Fein party in a landmark result, with Sir Jeffrey’s unionist party warning Boris Johnson it will not nominate a deputy first minister to form an executive at Stormont until “decisive action is taken on the protocol”.
In a call with Ireland’s premier Micheal Martin this week, Mr Johnson warned that the situation was “now very serious”.
Asked after his own call with the prime minister, whether the DUP thought action should be taken on the protocol “within weeks”, Sir Jeffrey said: “I’m not setting a time frame for this – what I am making absolutely clear [is] it is decisive action that we need, and we need that to happen quickly.”
But Sinn Fein’s vice president Michelle O’Neill said on Tuesday that the protocol is “here to stay” and called on the DUP to join an executive at Stormont.
However, alongside Ms Truss’s comments on Tuesday night, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) warned that the EU’s proposals would mean “unacceptable burdens on business and communities in Northern Ireland coming into force”, with “everyday items disappearing from shelves”.
In a move to highlight the impact full implementation of the protocol could have, Foreign Office officials said that if grace periods in the so-called “sausage wars” were not in place then Lincolnshire sausages and other chilled meats from Great Britain would need a veterinary certificate to enter Northern Ireland.
The department cited figures suggesting that at least 200 retailers in Great Britain have stopped delivering to customers in Northern Ireland amid increased trade friction.
The FCDO said full protocol controls would also provide powers to search people’s bags for food, such as ham sandwiches, on departure from the ferry to Northern Ireland, while pet owners would need to pay up to £280 for certificates and jabs for their pets to go on holiday in the UK.
The UK government has also lamented that some VAT cuts – such as the relief for energy-saving materials announced in Rishi Sunak’s spring statement – cannot be applied to Northern Ireland as the protocol means EU rates still apply there for goods.
The latest comments from Ms Truss and her department follow reports that she is set to move to discard large portions of the protocol after giving up on Brexit negotiations with the EU.
In a release on Tuesday, the FCDO said Mr Sefcovic had “made clear” in a call to Ms Truss last week that the EU “did not have, and in his view would never have, a mandate to renegotiate the protocol” or to go beyond the existing proposals.
But The Times reported that officials working for Ms Truss have drawn up draft legislation to unilaterally remove the need for checks on all goods being sent from Britain for use in Northern Ireland – a breach of the treaty negotiated by Mr Johnson in 2019.
The move has reportedly triggered an internal row among senior ministers, but Commons Leader Mark Spencer said the UK government could not rule out needing to unilaterally suspend parts of the protocol if “the EU won’t come to the table and won’t help us solve the challenges that Northern Ireland is facing”.
The EU’s Mr Sefcovic, in a statement, said: “The protocol, as a cornerstone of the Withdrawal Agreement, is an international agreement. Its renegotiation is not an option. The European Union is united in this position.”
Additional reporting by PA