Boris Johnson has triggered a fresh dispute with the European Union as his Government set out plans to override the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The Irish government said the measures marked a “new low point” and accused the Prime Minister’s administration of “breaking the law”.
The European Commission said it would take “proportionate” action to secure the implementation of the agreement governing Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements.
It said it would begin with the resumption of legal proceedings against the UK, which it suspended in September.
The PM insisted the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill contained only minor, bureaucratic changes, while Downing Street said it was an “insurance mechanism” in case a negotiated agreement with the EU could not be found.
Mr Johnson signed the protocol with the EU as part of the Brexit divorce settlement, with the measures aimed at preventing a hard border on the island of Ireland.
But by imposing checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain, the protocol has fuelled unionist anger in Northern Ireland and is also opposed by Eurosceptics in Mr Johnson’s Tory Party.
The new legislation creates a framework to allow ministers at Westminster to introduce changes in four areas covering customs and agri-food safety checks, regulation, subsidy controls and the role of the European Court of Justice.
The UK Government insisted the Bill was compatible with international law under the “doctrine of necessity” which allows obligations in treaties to be set aside under “certain, very exceptional, limited conditions”.
But Ireland’s premier Micheal Martin said: “It’s very regrettable for a country like the UK to renege on an international treaty”, adding: “It represents a new low point because the natural expectation of democratic countries like ourselves, the UK and all across Europe is that we honour international agreements that we enter into.”
The protocol is “an international deal ratified by British Parliament and approved by the PM”, the Taoiseach said, and breaching it “goes to the heart of the issue of trust”.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said the EU viewed the UK’s actions with “significant concern” and that it would consider what steps to take next.
As well as re-starting infringement proceedings against the UK, he said the EU would also look at launching further legal action to protect the integrity of the EU single market.
He said the access of Northern Ireland businesses to that single market was now “at risk” while the UK’s action had undermined the trust necessary for the operation of its post-Brexit trade deal with Brussels.
“Unilateral action is damaging to mutual trust,” he said.
“Our aim will always be to secure the implementation of the protocol. Our reaction to unilateral action by the UK will reflect that aim and will be proportionate.”
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said she was “very clear that we’re acting in line with the law” and blamed the EU for the failure to reach a negotiated settlement.
Responding to Mr Martin’s criticism she said: “We have sought a negotiated settlement for the last 18 months but as yet the EU have been unwilling to change the terms of the protocol.
“So I would strongly encourage the Irish Taoiseach to discuss this with the EU, to get a change in the mandate, and then we can go to the negotiating table.”
She rejected the suggestion the move was merely a negotiating ploy, telling reporters at the Foreign Office: “We’re completely serious about this legislation.”
The Bill will give ministers powers to override elements of the protocol, which was jointly agreed in 2019 by Mr Johnson’s Government and the EU.
The protocol arrangements require regulatory checks and customs declarations on goods and plant and animal products moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, because they could flow through the open border with Ireland into the EU’s single market.
Unionists in Northern Ireland are vociferously opposed to the treaty, claiming it has undermined the region’s place within the United Kingdom.
The DUP has blocked the formation of a new power-sharing government at Stormont following last month’s Assembly election in protest at the protocol.
What changes does the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill propose?
The Bill will enable ministers to establish a “green lane” so trusted traders are allowed to move goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland without checks, as long as the products remain within the UK.
Goods supplied by firms outside the trusted trader scheme, or products destined for Ireland and the EU, would go through a red lane and face checks.
Products being placed on the market in Northern Ireland would be allowed to follow either UK or EU regulations, rather than having to comply with Brussels’ rules.
Changes would also allow Northern Ireland to be included in UK Government state aid schemes and tax changes – for example the UK has complained that VAT relief on energy-saving materials could not be extended across the Irish Sea while changes to the alcohol duty regime are also prevented from applying in Northern Ireland.
The fourth area where changes are envisaged is the governance of the arrangements and the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
The plan would mean that UK courts are responsible for the operation of the new regime, but matters of EU law could still be referred to the ECJ.
The UK also proposes removing the ECJ as a final arbiter in trade disputes over the protocol, with the function instead handed to independent adjudicators.
The Government’s position has been opposed by 52 of the 90 MLAs in the Stormont assembly, with politicians representing Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Alliance Party condemning the “reckless” plan.
But Ms Truss said the protocol had “damaged the balance” between nationalist and unionist communities and she was determined to address that.
The Government’s actions could also inflame tensions with Joe Biden’s White House, which takes a keen interest in issues affecting the Good Friday Agreement – the President is proud of his Irish roots.
Ms Truss said: “I have had regular discussions with the United States on this issue. Of course they are an important ally of the United Kingdom, I know that the US wants to see this situation sorted out and they want to see the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement restored as well.”
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