UK plays down impact of new Brexit Bill on Northern Ireland protocol

Bill includes provisions to circumscribe protocol’s influence on UK’s state aid policy

British ministers will face questions from MPs on Tuesday about their government's commitment to the Northern Ireland protocol after Downing Street denied that it was planning to tear up the EU withdrawal agreement.

A Bill to be published on Wednesday will include provisions to circumscribe the protocol’s influence on the UK’s state aid policy and will make clear that goods moving from Northern Ireland to Britain will not have to be accompanied by an export declaration.

A finance Bill in the coming weeks will say that British ministers will decide which goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland are deemed “at risk” of proceeding into the EU’s single market.

The Labour Party has tabled an urgent question at Westminster on Tuesday to ask Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis to make a statement on Britain’s commitment to its legal obligations under the protocol.

Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Louise Haigh, described the government’s plans as baffling.

“If it’s meant to be a negotiating tactic, I don’t think it’s a very effective one because it undermines all the progress that’s been made over the last several months and completely jeopardises the future trading relationship,” she told the BBC.

“We have been begging the government, alongside Northern Ireland politicians and businesses, for several months now to get the detail of the protocol right. These are negotiations and arrangements that can be made through the joint and specialised committees. They are not completely insurmountable and they could have been done earlier this year. I believe they could still be done by the end of the year. It seems completely pig-headed to announce that we’re going to unilaterally override it and sends a terrible signal in bad faith to our trading partners in the EU and potential trading partners around the world.”

‘Inadvertent consequences’

Downing Street said Michael Gove would continue to negotiate the details of implementing the protocol in a joint committee with European Commission vice-president Maros Sevcovic. But Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said the government was legislating to ensure there would be no “inadvertent consequences” if all the details were not agreed by the end of the year.

"The Northern Ireland protocol was designed as a way of implementing the needs of our exit from the EU in a way that worked for Northern Ireland and in particular for maintaining the Belfast Agreement, the gains of the peace process and the delicate balance between both communities' interests. It explicitly depends on the consent of the people of Northern Ireland for its continued existence. As we implement the Northern Ireland protocol, this over-riding need must be kept in mind," the spokesman said.

“So we are taking limited and reasonable steps to clarify specific elements of the Northern Ireland protocol in domestic law to remove any ambiguity and to ensure the government is always able to deliver on its commitments to the people of Northern Ireland.”

The UK government’s command paper on the protocol, published in May, ruled out obliging Northern Irish businesses to complete export declarations for goods moving to Britain, and Mr Johnson has repeatedly asserted that there would be no checks on goods moving in the opposite direction. It now acknowledges that checks will be required on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland but the new legislation will state that it will be for a British minister to determine which goods fall into the category requiring checks.