Tory hardliners urge ditching of Northern Ireland protocol

ERG says EU’s threat to trigger article 16 creates a ‘unique political opportunity’

The European Research Group (ERG) of eurosceptic Conservative MPs has called on Boris Johnson to scrap the Northern Ireland protocol and replace it with a system of "mutual enforcement" to avoid Border friction. Every member of the group, which numbers about 50, voted in favour of Mr Johnson's withdrawal agreement, including the protocol.

But in a report published on Thursday the group argues that the European Union’s brief threat to trigger article 16 of the protocol last month created a “unique political opportunity” to renegotiate it.

The mutual enforcement regime would require the authorities on each side of the Border to ensure that their exporters abide by agreed rules to protect the EU single market without imposing checks at ports in Northern Ireland. The report says the UK government should tell the EU that it will pass a new law to redress “trade diversion and societal pressures” caused by the protocol.

"We will no doubt be told that the EU will never renegotiate the protocol – just as we were repeatedly assured they would never reopen the withdrawal agreement, or indeed abandon the dreaded 'backstop', which the protocol eventually replaced when they subsequently did both," ERG chairman Mark Francois said.


Muted reception

Downing Street gave the proposal a cool reception, saying the EU-UK joint committee was working through the difficulties presented by the protocol's implementation. In a joint statement after a meeting of the committee this week, co-chairmen Michael Gove and Maros Sevcovic agreed to ensure the proper implementation of the protocol.

“The parties acknowledged the importance of joint action to make the protocol work for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland,” it read. “In that spirit, the EU and UK reiterated their full commitment to the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions, and to the proper implementation of the protocol.

“Building on the recent outreach by the joint committee co-chairs, there would be further joint engagement with business groups and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland. The UK and the EU underlined their shared commitment to giving effect to those solutions agreed through the joint committee on December 17th, 2020, without delay. The UK noted that it would provide a new operational plan with respect to supermarkets and their suppliers, alongside additional investment in digital solutions for traders in accordance with the protocol.”

The two sides failed to agree the immediate extension of grace periods that have delayed some checks on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland. But both sides privately expect that some extension will be agreed before the first grace periods expire on March 31st.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times