UK bill to switch off Northern Ireland Brexit rules clears first hurdle

EuroActiv Politico News

LONDON — The U.K.’s controversial plan to allow ministers to switch off post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland moved a step closer Monday night amid fresh domestic criticism.

MPs voted 295 to 221 in favor of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, in a move that means the proposed law will now proceed to line-by-line scrutiny at the committee stage over three days.

But the plan, already branded illegal by the European Union, earned a stinging rebuke from former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, who described it as a breach of international law that would “diminish the standing of the United Kingdom in the eyes of the world.”

The bill would grant British ministers powers to ignore parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, a central part of the Brexit divorce deal with the EU that was designed to prevent a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.

The protocol keeps Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single market, but means the region must administer checks on goods arriving from the rest of the U.K. — stipulations hated by some Northern Irish unionists and attacked by the British government.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss insisted the U.K. had to legislate with urgency in order to persuade Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to return to the power-sharing institutions it has boycotted since February.

But the government’s claim that a “doctrine of necessity” justifies the legislation became one of the main lines of attack for critics of the bill in the House of Commons.

Simon Hoare, the Conservative chair of the Commons Northern Ireland affairs committee, described the legislation as “a failure of statecraft” that “puts at risk the reputation of the United Kingdom.”

He told MPs: “The arguments supporting it are flimsy at best, and irrational at worst … How in the name of heaven can we expect to speak to others with authority when we ourselves shun at a moment’s notice our legal obligations?”

Conservative MP and former minister Andrew Mitchell, meanwhile, said many of those opposing the plan are “extremely concerned that the bill brazenly breaks a solemn international treaty, it trashes our international reputation, it threatens a trade war at a time when our economy is flat and it puts us at odds with our most important ally.”

Some of the Conservatives most critical of the plan said they would abstain in Monday’s vote with a view to amending it in future stages.

MPs taking aim at the proposed law argued that the U.K. has other options, including further talks with the EU or triggering the existing Article 16 of the protocol, which allows either side to temporarily suspend parts of the deal under some circumstances.

Truss said the government has not ruled out invoking Article 16 in the future, but for now has concluded doing so will not resolve fundamental issues with the protocol which the British government argues require a rewrite. Use of Article 16 would, she said, only lead to “attrition and litigation” with the EU.

The bill earned the support of a prominent bloc of Tory Brexiteers, however, including former party leader Iain Duncan Smith, who urged ministers to pass the legislation “come hell or high water.” The DUP also signaled its support, with leader Jeffrey Donaldson saying his party would consider returning to the power-sharing regional executive once the bill passes the Commons.

Donaldson pointed out that the legislation could be sent to the House of Lords by parliament’s summer recess, but acknowledged its passage may then be blocked by members of the U.K.’s upper chamber.

Boris Johnson, speaking earlier at the G7 summit in Germany, said it may be possible to enact the bill this year, “parliament willing,” and expressed satisfaction at the lack of a diplomatic row over Northern Ireland at the meeting of world leaders.

“The interesting thing is how little this conversation is being had, certainly here,” the U.K. prime minister said.

That earned a rebuke from Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin, who said in Dublin that Johnson’s assessment “doesn’t stack up in the sense that any unilateral decision to breach international law is a major, serious development.”