Britain is ready if necessary to suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol in order to safeguard the peace process, Brexit Minister Lord Frost has warned.
In a keynote speech in Lisbon, Lord Frost said the protocol, agreed with the EU as part of the UK’s divorce settlement, 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.”
Among the changes the UK is seeking is replacing the role of the European Court of Justice in policing the protocol with a system of international arbitration.
Lord Frost said reform was essential, because the way the protocol was operating had “shredded” the balance between the two communities – unionist and nationalist – in Northern Ireland.
He said there was now a “short but real opportunity” to defuse the looming political crisis that threatened the peace process in Northern Ireland which the protocol was supposed to protect.
“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.
“The fundamental difficulty is that we are being asked to run a full-scale external boundary of the EU through the centre of our country, to apply EU law without consent in part of it, and to have any dispute on these arrangements settled in the court of one of the parties.
“The way this is happening is disrupting ordinary lives, damaging large and small businesses, and causing serious turbulence to the institutions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement within Northern Ireland.”
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.
“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’.”
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.
Unionists have been pressing for change, fearing their place within the United Kingdom is being undermined.
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 – which it is circulating in a formal legal text based on a command paper published earlier this year – sought to work “with the grain” of the protocol and would not undermine the single market.
“They protect the EU single market, not that it is in any way under threat,” he said.
“But, crucially, they would allow goods to circulate virtually freely between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – something that every other country in the world takes for granted.”