Boris Johnson's plan to rip up Northern Ireland Brexit deal clears first Commons test

MPs voted 295 to 221 to give the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill a second reading. Credit: PA

Proposals to allow the UK to unilaterally rip up Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland at the risk of a trade war with the EU have moved one step closer to becoming legislation.

MPs voted 295 to 221, a majority of 74, to give the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill a second reading, which clears the way for it to undergo detailed scrutiny in the coming weeks.

Boris Johnson claimed the proposed legislation, which gives ministers powers to override parts of the post-Brexit deal on Northern Ireland, could be carried out “fairly rapidly”, with the proposals in law by the end of the year.

However, Theresa May, Mr Johnson's predecessor, who faced numerous Commons defeats over her Brexit deal, warned that moves to unilaterally scrap parts of NI's Brexit deal are “not legal” and will “diminish” the UK’s global standing.

The Tory former prime minister delivered a withering assessment of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill as she made clear she would not support it.

Mrs May questioned the argument that a legal principle of necessity allows for the UK government’s plans, insisting there is “nothing urgent” about the legislation.

Concluding her speech to the House of Commons, she said: “The UK’s standing in the world, our ability to convene and encourage others in the defence of our shared values, depends on the respect others have for us as a country, a country that keeps its word, and displays those shared values in its actions.

“As a patriot, I would not want to do anything that would diminish this country in the eyes of the world.

“I have to say to the government, this Bill is not, in my view, legal in international law, it will not achieve its aims, and it will diminish the standing of the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world, and I cannot support it.”

Former cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell also voiced concerns that the UK could “trash” its international reputation by approving the bill designed to deal with issues connected to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

But Foreign Secretary Liz Truss sought to downplay the fears by arguing the Bill has a “strong legal justification” and the UK remains committed to seeking a negotiated solution.

Capitals across the EU bloc have reacted with outrage to the UK government's plans to override parts of the protocol, amid concerns it breaches international law.

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.

The government hopes their move to scrap parts of the protocol will allow goods to flow easier between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

However, proposals to do away with parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol have been dubbed a breach of international law by EU officials.

Ms Truss, opening the second reading debate on the Bill, said the UK continues to raise issues of concern with the EU.

Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss speaking to MPs in the House of Commons, London. Credit: PA

She told the Commons: “We simply cannot allow this situation to drift. Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since February due specifically to the protocol, at a time of major global economic challenges.

“Therefore, it is the duty of this government to act now to enable a plan for restored local government to begin. It’s both legal and necessary.”

As a result of stalled talks with the European Union over trade difficulties across the Irish Sea, the foreign secretary said the protocol bill is the "only solution" going forward.

Ms Truss also defended legal advice underpinning the bill, telling MPs: “We set out the case extremely clearly in the legal advice and the doctrine of necessity has been used by other governments in the past where there is a severe issue and the other party is unwilling to renegotiate that treaty."

Earlier in the day, Boris Johnson signalled that plans to tear up parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol could be done “fairly rapidly” and be law by the end of the year.

Boris Johnson suggests changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol could become law within months

The prime minister indicated he is not expecting a major diplomatic row over the government’s move on Monday.

An assertion that was rejected by Irish premier Micheal Martin, who said: "One cannot trivialise the breaching of an international agreement between the UK government and the EU.

“My concern is a trend towards unilateralism that is emanating from the UK government."

Speaking to reporters at the G7 summit in Germany, Boris Johnson said: "The interesting thing is how little this conversation is being had, certainly here.

“What we are trying to do is fix something that I think is very important to our country, which is the balance of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

G7 leaders posing for an informal photo in the Bavarian Alps, Germany. Credit: PA

“You have got one tradition, one community, that feels that things really aren’t working in a way that they like or understand, you’ve got unnecessary barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

“All we are saying is you can get rid of those whilst not in any way endangering the EU single market.”

Asked if the measures could be in place this year, he said: “Yes, I think we could do it very fast, Parliament willing.”

He said it would be “even better” if we could “get some of that flexibility we need in our conversations with Maros Sefcovic”, the European Commission vice-president, adding: “We remain optimistic.”

However, a Number 10 spokesperson then appeared to row back on Mr Johnson's comments, saying the government had never put a “hard target date” on when it would hope to see the bill enacted.

“We have never put a hard target date on it, but we want to pass it as quickly as possible to address the many issues we know the protocol is causing to people on the ground."

Opposition to the checks has seen the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) refuse to return to the power sharing Executive, leaving Northern Ireland without a functioning government.

The UK has insisted its unilateral approach is the only option left to resolve the issues to the protocol if the EU continues to refuse rewriting the terms of the deal.

Mr Sefcovic indicated further measures could follow if the UK presses ahead with the bill, sparking fears that he dispute could ultimately lead to a trade war, with tariffs or even the suspension of the entire Brexit deal between the UK and EU.

EU Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic. Credit: PA

Following the debate in the Commons, MPs will vote on whether it can proceed for further consideration.

Sir Keir Starmer confirmed his party will vote against the legislation at Westminster, but due to the Conservative Party's huge majority in the Commons it is likely to pass.

Alongside the second reading, the government is launching a number of meetings with the business community to discuss and gather views on the bill’s implementation.

The Foreign Office is hosting the first roundtable event on Monday, bringing together more than a dozen major UK businesses and representative groups including the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce, Asda, John Lewis and the Dairy Council for Northern Ireland.

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