The UK government has demanded a sweeping renegotiation of the Northern Ireland protocol to eliminate most checks on goods and to remove the oversight role of European courts.
Senior British government sources acknowledged that this would require changes to the text of the protocol, which is part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement Westminster ratified last year.
Introducing the proposals in parliament, Brexit minister David Frost said the protocol was causing “considerable and ongoing disruption to lives and livelihoods” in Northern Ireland. But he stopped short of suspending parts of the agreement by invoking article 16 of the protocol, saying now was not the right time to do so.
“Instead, we see an opportunity to proceed differently, to find a new path and to seek to agree with the EU, through negotiations, a new balance in our arrangements covering Northern Ireland, to the benefit of all,” he said.
“These proposals will require significant change to the Northern Ireland protocol, and we do not shy away from that. We believe such change is necessary to deal with the situation we now face. We look to open a discussion on these proposals urgently.”
A command paper outlining the proposals calls for the removal of all customs formalities for goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland unless they were explicitly destined to cross the Border into the EU’s single market. In the same way, sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks and certificates would only apply to agri-food products clearly at risk of entering the EU single market.
Under the protocol, goods circulating in Northern Ireland must comply with EU standards but the British proposal would introduce a dual regulatory regime so that products approved in Britain but not in the EU could also circulate there.
The protocol gives EU institutions including the Court of Justice the right to enforce some of its measures and Britain now wants to change that, introducing an international arbitration system instead.
“These arrangements are highly unusual and have not supported problem-solving in the context of a divided society – indeed they have arguably increased rather than reduced tensions. They have also contributed to a false sense of separation between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as trade arrangements operated within one part of the United Kingdom are ultimately overseen outside of it,” the command paper says.
Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh said the British government was again reneging on promises it had made and discrediting a deal they had negotiated.
“The country will be asking once again: Is this bad faith or incompetence? Whichever it is, the shambolic approach, the dishonesty, the recklessness and the utter ineptitude have come at a real cost. It has destroyed trust in the UK government, an essential component of the Belfast Good Friday agreement.
“It has fanned the flames of instability and, as ever, in the middle of this are the communities and businesses of Northern Ireland that have been repeatedly failed,” she said.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the proposals were “a welcome, significant and important first step” towards addressing the problems created by the protocol, adding that the border in the Irish Sea must be removed. But SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the move was based on political expediency rather than providing the stability that businesses and communities in Northern Ireland needed.