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Westminster pushes forward with NI Protocol Bill after lengthy debate

MPs voted 295 to 221 to give the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill a second reading, clearing the way for more detailed scrutiny in the coming weeks.

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. File photo
UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. File photo
Image: PA

Updated Jun 27th 2022, 10:21 PM

BORIS JOHNSON’S BID to effectively tear up parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol has cleared its first Commons hurdle amid warnings from some Tories that the plans are illegal.

MPs voted 295 to 221, majority 74, to give the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill a second reading, which clears the way for it to undergo detailed scrutiny in the coming weeks.

Johnson claimed the proposed legislation, which gives ministers powers to override parts of the post-Brexit deal on Northern Ireland, could be carried out “fairly rapidly”, with the proposals in law by the end of the year.

But his predecessor in No 10, Theresa May, led the criticism from the Tory benches as she delivered a withering assessment of the legality and impact of the Bill.

May made clear she would not support the legislation and warned it will “diminish” the UK’s global standing. 

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, presenting the bill, called it “legal and necessary”.

The second reading of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would see customs checks between Northern Ireland and Britain effectively scrapped, took place in the House of Commons this afternoon into the evening.

The Bill would also give UK government ministers the power to change almost every aspect of the text.

Truss pointed to the absence of a functioning government in Northern Ireland and said it was the duty of the UK government’s to “act now”.

The DUP has blocked attempts to move forward on forming a new Executive since Northern Ireland’s recent elections, citing its discontent with the Protocol.

Truss said the UK would “continue to seek a negotiated solution with the EU” as the Bill progresses.

“There is a solution to be achieved. We have laid it out very clearly with our proposal, but we do need the EU to agree to change the text of the protocol,” she said.

“That is the fundamental issue that needs to be addressed.”

Truss said the UK government was acting in the interests of people in Northern Ireland.

“Once this legislation is enacted, we can draw a line under this issue and unleash the full potential of our relationship with the EU.”

Significant time was set aside for the debate this afternoon and into this evening,

Speaking to reporters earlier this afternoon, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that the breaking of an international agreement should not be trivialised and that the UK Government were continuing to move towards unilateralism.

“One cannot trivialise the breaching of an international agreement between the United Kingdom government and the European Union,” said Martin.

“My concern is a trend towards unilateralism that’s emanating from the UK Government.

“We have it now on the Protocol. We’ve had it on legacy issues.

“This is not a good move by the British Government and it has to accept that unilateralism does not work in the context of the Good Friday Agreement or indeed in the context of good relationships with your neighbors and with the European Union.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney added said he is “hugely disappointed” that the British government is continuing to pursue its “unlawful unilateral approach on the Protocol on Northern Ireland”.

“This is not the way to find sustainable solutions to the genuine concerns of people and business in NI and only adds to uncertainty,” he said in a statement.

“I continue to urge the British government to return to constructive dialogue with the EU in pursuit of jointly agreed, long-lasting solutions.”

Commons debate

MPs in the House of Commons held a long and firy debate on their positions on the Protocol Bill.

Speaking in the Commons, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said the Protocol Bill was seeking to “finally and fundamentally reset and restore Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom, given the devastating impact of the protocol on the economic, constitutional, social and political life of Northern Ireland over the last 18 months”.

The MP for Lagan Valley said MLAs in Northern Ireland were presiding over regulations “over which they have no say”.

SDLP MP Claire Hanna called for a “negotiated solution” with the EU as she told MPs “we have solved bigger problems than these before”.

The MP for Belfast South insisted “there’s no doubt that the protocol can be smooth” and “the operation can be improved”, adding: “Everybody says that.

“Nobody, as I’ve said before, 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, through compromises, and not through unmeetable red lines that would remove the people of Northern Ireland from the single market, which is something that has no support,” Hanna said.

“But instead of doing the hard work and levelling with the people of Northern Ireland, this Government, to whom the DUP have shackled themselves, are choosing to distort and deflect.”

Conservative MP William Cash said the Bill is “necessary” to protect the union and Good Friday Agreement, and he criticised the European Union of “intransigence”.

Fellow Conservative and former minister Bob Neill told the Commons he would abstain from the vote “”to see how the Bill develops because I think it could be amended into a workable form, but it comes with very many caveats and a lot of questions I think the ministers need to answer”.

Alliance MP Stephen Farry called it an “an extremely bad Bill, it’s unwanted, unnecessary and, indeed, it’s dangerous”

Conservative former Northern Ireland minister Andrew Murrison has said he will support the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, but said he is “somewhat bewildered” by the refusal to consider triggering Article 16.

“That is already available to them and nobody has marshalled credible argument, that satisfies me certainly, that it could not be done, should not be done. The grounds for triggering Article 16 are clearly there, in that we don’t have anything approaching proper covenants in Northern Ireland, not at all,” Murrison said.

EU response

The European Union has strongly condemned the plan to unilaterally scrap parts of the Brexit deal and has warned that it could take further action against Britain if it enacts the legislation.

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The EU launched fresh legal action against the UK just days after the Bill was published. 

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said the UK’s move had “no legal or political justification”.

As well as new legal action for alleged failures to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol as it stands, Sefcovic confirmed that existing infringement proceedings which had been paused while UK-EU talks took place would now be resumed.

Speaking at a press conference in Brussels, Sefcovic said the UK Government had set out to “unilaterally break international law”.

The plan would mean “breaking an agreement that protects peace and stability in Northern Ireland, an agreement reached together only three years ago”.

“Let there be no doubt: there is no legal nor political justification whatsoever for unilaterally changing an international agreement.

“Opening the door to unilaterally changing an international agreement is a breach of international law as well. So let’s call a spade a spade: this is illegal.”

Asked about potential further action against the UK, he said: “If this draft Bill becomes the law then I cannot exclude anything.

“But we are not there yet and we want to solve this issue as the two partners should, through negotiations, looking for the common ground and delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.” 

Additional reporting by Tadgh McNally, Lauren Boland and Press Association

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Jane Moore

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