Lewis defends UK’s unilateral action on Northern Ireland protocol

The Northern Ireland Secretary of State has defended the government's actions after being accused of provocation and damaging the UK's reputation by unilaterally extending the relaxation period for post-Brexit checks.

Brandon Lewis hit back saying the decision was lawful and necessary to avoid disruption to food supplies.

Mr Lewis said he was trying to avoid a disruption to the flow of goods similar to those seen in supermarkets in January when he announced last week that the government was extending the grace period on checks.

On Wednesday he told MPs those scenes would've been repeated if he'd not decided to take urgent action last week.

The Shadow Secretary of State Louise Haigh, who raised the urgent question in the House of Commons, disagreed.

She said: “It raises serious questions over whether the Government had a strategy at all to deal with the complex realities facing Northern Ireland. Provocation is not a strategy, and a stopgap is not a solution.”

Mr Lewis replied: "We would have liked to have been able to get this agreement with the EU, sadly that wasn't possible within the timeframe in which we had to make a decision to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland would not suffer a loss of trade, and a loss of flow of products into Northern Ireland in the next couple of weeks. That's why we took some simple, operational, pragmatic decisions last week.

"And I have to say, I'm just a bit disappointed but I probably shouldn't be surprised to see the Labour Party front bench standing here defending the EU rather than defending the actions of the UK government which is standing up for the people of the United Kingdom, and in this particular case, making sure that that we do the right thing by the people of Northern Ireland.”

Many MPs made plain their displeasure at the developments to do with Northern Ireland.

Labour MP Conor McGinn said: “The government said there would never be a border down the Irish Sea, then they signed up to one, then they pretended that it didn't exist, and said that even if it did, sure it would have no impact anyway, and now they are saying, well actually there is one, but we can just ignore it. Will the right honourable gentleman stop taking people for fools?” SDLP leader Colum Eastwood retorted: "Is the Secretary of State at all concerned that this Government's reputation is in tatters?"

Supporting the government's move, Tory MP Laurence Robertson said not to do so would have been "irresponsible".

Jeffrey Donaldson reiterated the DUP's position that they need a "permanent solution to this problem".

While Simon Hoare, chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, criticised the government’s methods.

"Can I ask, my right honourable friend, whether the government understands the very destabilising effect on trust that unilateral action brings on both UK-EU relations, and on UK-Irish relations? Can I urge the Government to desist from a narrative of unilateral action and debate?” Those critical of the Northern Ireland protocol will have been pleased to hear the Secretary of State is not backing away from last week's decision, but less so at his commitment to find "flexible solutions" to the protocol when asked directly to ditch the measure.