The British government is preparing to tear up its post-Brexit deal with the European Union, including Irish Sea border checks.
With just days to go before the Assembly election in Northern Ireland, a bill is being prepared at Westminster, the Financial Times reports, in anticipation of an imminent crisis if the DUP refuse to re-enter the power-sharing executive at Stormont.
The paper reports that the proposed legislation would allow ministers to unilaterally switch off key parts of the protocol in UK law. Unionist parties want the protocol – which was set up as part of the post-Brexit trade deal between the UK and EU – scrapped. The protocol prevents a hard border in Ireland by keeping Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single market for goods, thus shifting the customs border to the Northern Ireland ports.
The FT quoted one EU diplomat as saying: “Given what is at stake in Ukraine and for the west as a whole, this definitely is not the time for gambling away Britain’s reputation as a stalwart of the rules-based international order.”
Speaking during a trip to India, where he was holding discussions on a possible trade deal, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson instead found himself answering questions about reneging on another trade deal, this time with the EU.
“This is something that has been a consistent issue for the UK government and I think it’s very simple,” Johnson said.
“It’s about the balance of the Good Friday Agreement and because of what is happening, it would be fair to say that the protocol really does not command the confidence of a large, large component of the population in Northern Ireland. We have to address that, we have to fix that.”
When he was asked if that could include new legislation, Johnson replied: “Of course. That goes without saying.”
The Irish government and the EU are furious with this latest British move.
Asked about the Financial Times report, European Commission spokesperson Dan Ferrie said: "We are fully committed to working jointly with the UK government to find long lasting solutions in Northern Ireland to bring about long lasting certainty and predictability for people and businesses in Northern Ireland. Only joint solutions can do that – jointly agreed solutions.
"It's important to underline as well that our agreements – the Withdrawal Agreement, the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland – are legal obligations to which the UK are bound as much as we are," Mr Ferrie added.
The EU has already agreed changes to EU law to ensure the free flow of medicines into Northern Ireland from Britain.
"Last October we came forward with a number of serious wide-ranging solutions for Northern Ireland. We've been working on them since and our intention is to continue working on these solutions with the UK over the coming weeks," he said.
Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy said: “We cannot afford to spend another six or nine months that the British government are going to legislate, upend everything, that we understand in terms of the agreement that they’ve come to with the European Union, and there needs to be international pressure applied to them.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “He doesn’t care about Northern Ireland, he cares about himself and his own position and that’s what anyone engaging with him from the unionist side should understand by now.”