Brexit Minister Lord Frost has warned that the Government could unilaterally suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol as he set out Britain’s demands for a new arrangement with the EU.
In a keynote speech, Lord Frost said the Government was putting forward a new legal text as the existing protocol was undermining the peace process it was supposed to protect.
He insisted that the role of the European Court of Justice in policing the protocol – which forms part of the UK’s Brexit “divorce” settlement with the EU – must end.
But his demands were given short shrift by the Irish Tanaiste Leo Varadkar who warned they would be “very hard to accept” in Brussels.
“The role of the European Court of Justice is there to adjudicate the rules of the single market,” he told a news conference in Dublin.
“I don’t think we could ever have a situation where another court could decide what the rules of the single market are.”
In his speech delivered to diplomats in Lisbon, Lord Frost said the current agreement was not working and that fundamental change was necessary if it was to survive.
He said the UK was prepared to trigger Article 16 of the protocol – which allows either side to override large parts of the agreement – if that could not be achieved.
“It is this government, the UK Government, that governs Northern Ireland as it does the rest of the UK,” he said.
“Northern Ireland is not EU territory. It is our responsibility to safeguard peace and prosperity and that may include using Article 16 if necessary.
“We would not go down this route gratuitously or with any particular pleasure but it is our fundamental responsibility to safeguard peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland and that is why we cannot rest until this situation is addressed.”
Here is the speech I delivered today in Lisbon on the future of UK-EU relations. https://t.co/AwVIdZZlGJ
— David Frost (@DavidGHFrost) October 12, 2021
He said there was a “short but real opportunity” to defuse the looming political crisis, with unionists fearing their constitutional place in the United Kingdom was being undermined.
“We now face a very serious situation. The protocol is not working. It has completely lost consent in one community in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“It is not doing the thing it was set up to do – protect the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. In fact it is doing the opposite. It has to change.”
He said it would be a “historic misjudgment” by the EU to argue that the arrangements in the protocol – which were drawn up in “great haste” – could never be improved upon.
He even suggested that some in the EU were prepared to see the current problems the protocol was causing as an “acceptable price to pay” to show that Brexit had failed.
“It would be to prioritise EU internal processes over relieving turbulence in Northern Ireland; to say that societal disruption and trade distortion can be disregarded as mere background noise; perhaps even that they are an acceptable price for Northern Ireland to pay to demonstrate that ‘Brexit has not worked’,” he said.
The protocol is intended to ensure the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic stays open while protecting the single market, which Northern Ireland remains a part of.
But the need for checks on goods crossing to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK has led to growing tensions both between London and Brussels and within Northern Ireland.
Lord Frost’s speech came the day before the EU was due to produce its plans to resolve issues surrounding the protocol.
He said the UK would consider whatever European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic put forward “seriously, fully, and positively”.
But he insisted the UK’s proposals for an “amended” protocol – based on a command paper published earlier this year – sought to work “with the grain” of the existing agreement.
Senior Irish TD Neale Richmond accused the minister of “gross duplicity” and said his talk of a new legal text signalled a “worrying desire” to abandon the existing protocol.
“To talk of an alternative protocol on Northern Ireland without so much as a jot of consultation with the EU, the Irish government or politicians in Northern Ireland, confirms a British Government still speaking to itself,” he said.
“Playing to a domestic audience, this latest Brexit lurch is an act of gross duplicity from the man who negotiated every line of the protocol, endorsed the protocol and sold it to the UK public in the first place.”