The British government has called on Northern Ireland’s biggest unionist party to “get on with it” and resolve the region’s political impasse, as fallout continues from the UK’s bid to rip up large parts of the Brexit trade deal for the region.
Foreign secretary Liz Truss made the appeal a day after the UK government published legislation to meet unionist demands and override the Brexit deal with the EU to eliminate barriers for goods exported to Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Brussels is preparing to take legal action as soon as Wednesday in response to the UK moves.
The Democratic Unionist party has refused to re-enter Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, which it exited in February, without the removal of the customs border in the Irish Sea that was established by the so-called Northern Ireland protocol to Britain’s Brexit deal with the EU. The DUP has also paralysed the election of a speaker to the regional Stormont assembly.
“I would like the DUP to get on with it as soon as possible,” Truss said in an interview with BBC Radio Ulster, as she called for the party to reactivate Northern Ireland’s political institutions.
But while DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson praised the new legislation as a potential “solution that can work for everyone”, he said his party would only return to political institutions “when we believe have made sufficient progress”.
The bill is expected to encounter heavy opposition in the House of Lords and may also need to overcome resistance among Conservative MPs worried that it will break Britain’s international legal commitments.
Ireland says bilateral ties with the UK have crashed to a historic low.
“All of Britain’s friends are saying effectively ‘please don’t do this’,” said Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney, adding that Britain’s move would “destabilise what is already a difficult situation”.
Washington has also urged the UK not to put at risk the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of sectarian conflict.
Truss said the legislation was “the only option” to fix the social and political “peril” the government says has been caused by the protocol just two years after Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed his Brexit deal as a breakthrough.
The government argues the Good Friday Agreement, which established power-sharing as the basis for local politics, is under such threat that even triggering a suspension mechanism contained in the protocol would not have fixed the problems.
Truss said triggering Article 16 of the protocol, which would have temporarily put parts on hold, would only have “kicked the can down the road and caused more frustration”.
But Michelle O’Neill, Northern Ireland’s first minister-in-waiting after her Sinn Féin party won regional elections last month, branded the UK’s actions “disgraceful and reckless” and a “straight-up, slam dunk breach of an international agreement”.
Under the bill, goods destined to stay in Northern Ireland would pass through a green channel with no checks, while only British goods travelling into the Republic of Ireland and the EU would go through a “red lane”.
It would end the oversight role of the European Court of Justice as well as EU control over state aid and value added tax in the region, and create a dual regulatory regime allowing goods from Britain circulating in Northern Ireland to meet either UK or EU standards.
The commission is preparing to outline options that could ease trade frictions within the ambit of the existing legislation, as it leaves open diplomatic paths for a resolution of its differences with the UK.
But Brussels is also expected as soon as Wednesday to embark on legal action as it responds to Truss’s proposed legislation. This would include reactivating legal action against London for failing to implement full border checks in Northern Ireland, which was paused in July 2021 to bolster the negotiating process.
Two further infringement actions against the UK are also on the cards, European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič told MEPs in a private briefing on Tuesday, including action on health checks, as he vowed to respond firmly to the UK’s latest move.
The MEPs who chair the European parliament’s UK contact group — David McAllister, Bernd Lange and Nathalie Loiseau — warned on Tuesday that the UK’s unilateral action constituted a “serious and unacceptable breach of international law”.