Northern Ireland Protocol is a 'means to an end' and 'no option off the table', Gove says

Michelle O'Neill, the leader of Northern Ireland's biggest party Sinn Féin, wants the Northern Ireland Protocol to stay but the UK is desperate to reform it. Credit: PA

The Northern Ireland Protocol is a "means to an end" and the UK could unilaterally walk away from its agreement with the European Union, Michael Gove has said, as he warned "no option is off the table".

The UK has been negotiating reforms to the Northern Ireland Protocol - a treaty between the EU and Britain which ensures no hard border on the island of Ireland - but the foreign secretary says European proposals could worsen the current arrangement.

Ministers say the agreement in its current form is causing disruption to businesses in Northern Ireland because of EU-imposed checks on trade with the rest of the UK.

Liz Truss said “our preference has always been for a negotiated solution" but she indicated the UK could leave the international treaty if reforms cannot be agreed - a move many have said would show the UK is an untrustworthy trading partner.

The foreign secretary said the UK "will not shy away from taking action to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland if solutions cannot be found".

But Mr Gove, the levelling up secretary, insisted ministers are "not proposing to tear up anything".

"What we're doing is negotiating with the European Union in order to make sure that we can deal with some of the problems and the implementation of the protocol," he said, adding: "As in any negotiation, no option is off the table."

Michelle O’Neill - the vice president of Sinn Féin, which just won Northern Ireland's Stormont elections - said on Tuesday that the protocol is “here to stay”.

Former prime minister Theresa May, who was forced out of Downing Street over her position on Brexit, warned her successor Boris Johnson against taking unilateral action on the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Speaking in the Commons Queen's Speech debate, Mrs May warned about the "wider sense of what such a move would say about the UK and its willingness to abide by treaties which it has signed".

Mr Gove, responding to Ms May's comments, said: "We're not proposing to tear up anything, what we are proposing to do is to negotiate in order to make sure that people in Northern Ireland have their rights as citizens of the United Kingom protected."

However, asked if keeping the protocol in place is at all possible, Mr Gove said: "We need an approach which recognises the protocol is a means to an end and that end is to ensure that we don't have the type of physical infrastructure on the island of Ireland that would undermine the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and that we make sure that the EU's single market is protected at the same time as the UK's internal market is respected."

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?

The Northern Ireland Protocol, negotiated between Britain and the EU as part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, allows goods to cross from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland without checks.

There were no border checks between the two countries before Brexit, so the Protocol ensured this was maintained to respect the Good Friday Agreement - or the 1998 peace agreement.

The EU has strict rules, however, on certain goods - like food - and requires checks before they are brought in to the block.

Checks are therefore made in England, Wales or Scotland before entering Northern Ireland, which has caused controversy and essentially created a border in the Irish sea.

This has made unionist parties in the country feel that they are growing apart from the UK.

Ms Truss said some proposals put forward by the European Union during months of discussions on the post-Brexit deal would “take us backwards” as she argued against introducing “more checks, paperwork and disruption”.

For analysis of news' biggest stories listen to the What You Need To Know podcast

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said at least 200 retailers in Great Britain have stopped delivering to customers in Northern Ireland amid increased trade friction caused by the protocol.

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.

Pet owners would meanwhile need to pay up to £280 for certificates and jabs for their pets to go on holiday in the UK, the department added.

ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston understands that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is planning to say that the UK government will take powers in legislation to breach its treaty obligations under the Protocol, and suspend border checks on goods flowing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Peston expects the announcement to come on Friday.

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic 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.”