UK delays Bill to unilaterally scrap parts of NI protocol

Disagreement emerges over form of legislation and concerns about DUP position

The British government has delayed until next week a Bill to unilaterally scrap parts of the Northern Ireland protocol amid a last-minute disagreement over what form it should take and concerns about the position of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Prime minister Boris Johnson has yet to decide whether the legislation should itself disapply the protocol’s central elements or only give ministers the power to do so.

The British government hopes that publishing the Bill will persuade the DUP to agree to elect a speaker for the Northern Ireland Assembly as a first step towards restoring the Stormont institutions. But The Irish Times understands that the party will not elect a speaker if the British government introduces a Bill that offers ministers discretion about whether to override the protocol.

Government sources in Dublin said they had received no advance warning from Downing Street about the British government’s intentions yesterday, underlining the freeze in relations between Dublin and London over the protocol.

Speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg yesterday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin stepped up his criticism of Boris Johnson’s government, telling MEPs that the proposed British legislation would be a “historic low point” which would signal a “disregard for essential principles of laws, which are the foundation of international relations” and would “quite literally, be to the benefit of absolutely no one”.

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DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said he was disappointed by the Taoiseach’s remarks, telling the House of Lords sub-committee on the protocol that the Irish Government was indifferent to unionist concerns. “They are tone deaf to concerns to unionists. They don’t get it and if they do they ignore it,” he told the sub-committee regarding the protocol.

“If the Irish Government want to see the institutions restored, they are going to have to listen to unionist concern … If the Taoiseach believes the way forward is to continue to implement the protocol, what does that say about their desire to protect the political institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement?”

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Doug Beattie told the committee that negotiations between Britain and the EU offered the best hope for solving the protocol’s problems. And he warned that unhappiness over the protocol could spill over into violence if there is no progress over the next few months.

“My big fear is if there is nothing this summer, those frustrations could come to the boil if people are not moving and trying to fix the problems we have in Northern Ireland. It doesn’t take much to go from a brick to a stone and from a stone to a petrol bomb and to a petrol bomb to a bullet and from a bullet to a coffin,” he said.

The Irish Government and the European Commission have been in close contact this week and are likely to carefully co-ordinate their responses to any British move. But senior sources in Brussels and Dublin said they would adopt a wait-and-see approach, with the EU unlikely to retaliate immediately when the legislation is brought to the House of Commons.

Labour has said it will oppose unilateral action on the protocol and the party’s leader Keir Starmer is expected to discuss the issue when he meets the Taoiseach in Dublin on Thursday.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is London Editor of The Irish Times

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times