Foreign Secretary warns EU she is willing to trigger Article 16 over Northern Ireland protocol

Liz Truss Credit: PA

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has warned she is prepared to unilaterally override parts of the post-Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland if the negotiations she is newly leading fail.

Ms Truss said she will suggest “constructive proposals” to her EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic this week during their first face-to-face talks.

But she said she is “willing” to trigger Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, which would suspend parts of the treaty designed to prevent a hard border with the Republic, if a deal cannot be struck.

If Article 16 is triggered, a month’s notice is expected before the emergency get-out clause comes in.

Article 16 is the option to backtrack on the deal that delivered the protocol in Northern Ireland which many people there and the UK government are unhappy with.

The so-called "protocol" is a political term for what is effectively a new border that now splits the UK down the Irish Sea - separating Northern Ireland from England, Scotland, and Wales.

That is unacceptable to Northern Ireland’s Unionist and Loyalist communities because it threatens the very British identity they have fiercely defended for a century now, sometimes with violence.

They say the protocol has been done to them without their consent.

While the border between the UK and the EU is between Northern Ireland and the Republic, there are fears that if a hard border were put there instead, it could undermine the 1998 peace deal.

The Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that finally ended decades of fighting in Northern Ireland has, as one of its cornerstones, the principal of allowing people in Northern Ireland to identify as either British or Irish.

Putting hard-border infrastructure through Ireland would represent a symbolic retreat from that - anathema to Irish republicans and nationalists who pursue the goal of a united Ireland.

While many Loyalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland are unhappy that the protocol sets them apart from the rest of the UK, the government is also unhappy with how the protocol is functioning for trade and laws - making Northern Ireland trade on different rules to the rest of the UK and still subject to the European Court of Justice - so they want a rewrite of the whole agreement.

In practice, the protocol it means certain goods coming in to Northern Ireland from other parts of the UK, such as eggs, meat, and medicine, are now subject to stops and checks.

These goods and the hauliers carrying them are treated as though they are leaving the UK and entering the EU.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Ms Truss said it is her “absolute priority” to resolve the “unintended consequences” created by the protocol to maintain peace in Northern Ireland."

Credit: PA

What is Article 16?

There is an option to backtrack on the deal that delivered the Protocol by triggering ‘Article 16.’

Article 16 is a mechanism that offers both the UK and the EU a get-out clause - a chance to unilaterally scrap the way the Protocol is working and apply emergency “safeguard” measures.

This can only be done if it is perceived that the Protocol is fundamentally not working for either party - the agreement cites “serious economic, societal, or environmental difficulties” as cause for Article 16.

The UK government believes that threshold has been reached in Northern Ireland; the EU disputes this.

The UK government also says it “would not go down this route gratuitously or with any particular pleasure”.

The Irish government has warned the UK that it would be “reckless”.

Yet there is increasing expectation that Article 16 could be activated by the UK in the coming weeks.

The foreign secretary was handed responsibility for the negotiations after Lord Frost resigned as Brexit minister last month over his opposition to the government's Covid 'Plan B' measures.

Ms Truss is hosting Mr Sefcovic, a European Commission vice-president, at the Chevening country retreat afforded to the foreign secretary when he visits on Thursday.

Writing in the newspaper, Ms Truss continued: “When I see Maros Sefcovic this week for our first face-to-face talks, I’ll be putting forward our constructive proposals to resolve the situation.”

The current issues are “myriad and manifest”, she argued, citing issues such as bureaucracy on sending parcels between Northern Ireland and Britain and problems procuring kosher food.

“I am prepared to work night and day to negotiate a solution,” Ms Truss continued.

“But let me be clear, I will not sign up to anything which sees the people of Northern Ireland unable to benefit from the same decisions on taxation and spending as the rest of the UK, or which still sees goods moving within our own country being subject to checks.

“My priority is to protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland. I want a negotiated solution but if we have to use legitimate provisions including Article 16, I am willing to do that.”

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic Credit: Hollie Adams/PA

Last week, Mr Sefcovic warned that “the foundation of the entire deal” brokered between the UK and the EU would be jeopardised if Ms Truss takes the drastic step.

“This is a very distracting element in the discussions. You try to achieve something together and – bam – there’s the threat of Article 16 again,” he told German newspaper Der Spiegel.

“It touches on the fundamentals of our relationship.

“The Northern Ireland Protocol was the most complicated part of the Brexit negotiations, and it is the foundation of the entire deal. Without the protocol, the whole system will collapse. We must prevent that at any cost.”