Senior Conservatives including former prime minister Theresa May have denounced the British government’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill as illegal under international law and unlikely to wring concessions from the European Union.
But DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson suggested his party could go back into government in Northern Ireland if the Bill passed all its stages in the House of Commons.
Introducing a debate on Monday on the legislation, which would allow British ministers to unilaterally scrap most of the protocol, foreign secretary Liz Truss said it was not her preferred choice.
“But in the absence of a negotiated solution there is no other choice. There is no need for the EU to react negatively. They will be no worse off as a result of this legislation. These issues are very small in the context of the single market, but they are critically important for Northern Ireland,” she said. “Once this legislation is through, we will have a solution that helps restore the balance between the communities and helps uphold the purpose of the Good Friday Agreement.”
Ms May said the government’s legal arguments did not hold water and by breaching international law it would damage Britain’s reputation. And she warned that unilateral action would not persuade the EU to change their negotiating stance and that events at Westminster were watched closely in Brussels.
“As I discovered after I had faced a no-confidence vote despite having won that no-confidence vote, they then start to ask themselves, ‘Well, is it really worth negotiating with these people in government? Because will they actually be there in any period of time?’” she said.
“Also, actually, I suspect they are saying to themselves why should they negotiate in detail with a government that shows itself willing to sign an agreement, claim it as a victory and then try and tear it apart in three years’ time?”
Ms May said she could not support the Bill and Simon Hoare, chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, urged fellow Conservatives to oppose it.
Former Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith also criticised the legislation, calling for fresh negotiations between Britain, the EU, Ireland and the parties in Northern Ireland.
Mr Donaldson said the protocol had been devastating for the economic, constitutional, social and political life of Northern Ireland over the last 18 months.
“If this Bill convincingly passes all its Commons stages in its current form and the government continues to develop the regulations required to bring to an end the harmful implementation of the protocol then that would of course give substantially greater confidence that new arrangements are on the way, which in turn would provide a basis to take further steps to see a return of our local institutions,” he said.
The SDLP’s Claire Hanna reminded MPs that most people in Northern Ireland voted against leaving the EU and a majority of MLAs elected last month rejected the government’s unilateral action.
“I can understand entirely the hurt and frustration of many ordinary unionists. They have been catastrophically misrepresented by the DUP and the prime minister,” she said. “Nobody in Northern Ireland loves the protocol but we know that the better options were voted down. But like everything that’s worth doing in Northern Ireland, that will be achieved through partnership and through compromise.”
The UK government has allocated three further days next month to debate the legislation and if it passes all its stages in the Commons it moves to the House of Lords, where it can be amended and delayed for up to a year.