Government criticises British plans to set aside parts of Northern Ireland protocol

Taoiseach accuses Johnson of abandoning agreements to pursue domestic political goals

The Government reacted with public disappointment and private anger to the British announcements yesterday that it would legislate to set aside parts of the Northern Ireland protocol and proceed with a plan that could block prosecutions for some murders during the Troubles.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin accused British prime minister Boris Johnson of unilaterally abandoning agreements in pursuit of domestic political goals.

The division between the Irish and British governments is turning into the worst rift in many years between the two erstwhile partners in the Northern Ireland peace process.

In the Dáil, Mr Martin was highly critical of the British move to depart from the Stormont House agreement on dealing with the legacy of the Troubles. “I’ve made it consistently clear to the British prime minister on an ongoing basis that unilateralism does not work in respect to the full implementation of the Good Friday agreement,” the Taoiseach said.

Under its plan, the British government would grant immunity from prosecution to people who co-operate with inquiries into Troubles-era killings – a move widely seen as an effort to protect former members of the British army from prosecution.

As for the plan to set aside parts of the protocol through legislation, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said this was “contrary to the wishes of people and business in Northern Ireland”. He added: “Such unilateral action in respect of an internationally binding agreement is damaging to trust and will serve only to make it more challenging to find solutions to the genuine concerns that people in Northern Ireland have about how the protocol is being implemented.”

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the UK’s actions yesterday were “akin to a rogue state”.

Significant concerns

In response to the announcement at Westminster by foreign secretary Liz Truss, the European Commission’s point man on the protocol, Maroš Šefcovic, issued a statement to say it raised “significant concerns” and warned of potential EU action in response.

“Should the UK decide to move ahead with a Bill disapplying constitutive elements of the protocol as announced today by the UK government, the EU will need to respond with all measures at its disposal,” the statement read.

But senior sources at the European Commission said they would play down the British moves and seek to keep negotiations going, rather than escalating the row by taking retaliatory measures. EU sources also made clear that the commission had a range of options to take action against the British under the agreement.

The legislation, to be introduced within weeks, would create a new green channel allowing all goods British suppliers say are destined only for Northern Ireland to enter from Britain without checks, with a red channel for goods that will move into the European single market. Goods made in Northern Ireland would no longer be required to comply with EU standards as long as they accord with British ones.

In addition, the protocol’s rules on VAT and state aid would be scrapped and the European Court of Justice would no longer have any role in adjudicating disputes.

Mr Johnson dismissed the risk of retaliation from the EU. “We don’t want to nix it, we want to fix it and we will work with our EU partners to do it,” the prime minister said.

DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed the British government move as a “good start” but said it was not enough to entice his party back to Stormont power sharing.

The DUP’s failure to nominate a speaker last Friday over its opposition to the post-Brexit trade deal has led to the effective collapse of Assembly.

Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie similarly described the UK pledge as “a step towards” but SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the majority of citizens in the North supported the protocol.

Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry said the proposed action was unwanted and unwarranted. “Much of the rationale cited by the government is disingenuous,” he said.