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Downing Street Denies It Planned To "Suck It Up" And Ditch Northern Ireland Protocol Later

4 min read

Dominic Cummings' explosive claim that the UK always planned to ditch the Northern Ireland Protocol reflects government thinking when the Brexit deal was signed, according to a former government official familiar with the matter.

On Tuesday night Cummings prompted outrage at home and abroad when he tweeted that the government had always intended to "ditch" elements of the post-Brexit agreement for Northern Ireland that it "didn't like" after signing it. The former adviser to Boris Johnson added it was "never my intention" to implement the arrangements painstakingly agreed with Brussels.

A former government official who worked on Brexit, has now told PoliticsHome that Cummings wasn't the only senior figure within government who believed this at the time.

"There was certainly a shared feeling of just getting the damn thing through and sucking it up, with the intention of changing things or being able to after we’d left," they explained. 

A Downing Street spokesperson rejected the claim, insisting that the government only sought changes to the treaty for Northern Ireland after it became clear how Brussels was implementing it.

“The Government originally agreed the Protocol in order to protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Friday Agreement by leaving the EU full and whole," they told PoliitcsHome. 

"Despite our reservations, we hoped the EU would implement it in a way which delivered on this objective.

"Evidentially, this has not happened and that is why we need changes that make the Protocol sustainable for the future.”

Leo Varadkar, the former Republic of Ireland Taoiseach, who negotiated the Protocol with Johnson in late 2019, said Cummings' tweets indicated the government "acted in bad faith" when it signed up to the agreement. A Dublin source told PoliticsHome they felt Cummings' revelations were a "breathtaking approach to international relations".

There have long been suspicions in Brussels that the UK government always planned to change the Northern Ireland Protocol, as Cummings claimed last night.

Early last summer, prominent pro-Brexit Tory MP Steve Baker claimed that Conservative backbenchers were reassured by the government that the UK would be able to alter the deal after it had come into force.

"He [Cummings] said we should vote for the original withdrawal agreement without reading it, on the basis Michael Gove articulated: we could change it later. But now with him in power, we are putting in a modest border in the Irish Sea," he wrote in The Critic.

Philip Rycroft, who was Permanent Secretary in the Department for Exiting the EU before Johnson agreed his Brexit deal with the EU, this afternoon said the government "will have known what it signed up to when it agreed to the Protocol" and failed to say he believed Downing Street was currently negotiating in good faith. 

"Does the UK government want the Protocol to work? I have to say, I just don't know what the answer to that is right now," he told the BBC World At One.

The Protocol, which was part of what Johnson described as an "oven-ready" Brexit deal, was designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and came into effect at the beginning of this year.

But the UK government has since said they want to effectively rewrite the treaty, arguing that it is causing an unacceptable level of disruption to trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Cabinet Office Minister Lord Frost, who oversees the UK's post-Brexit relationship with the EU, yesterday warned Brussels refusing to make fundamental changes would be a "historical misjudgement" and called for an entirely new treaty.

Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission Vice-President, will unveil a series EU proposals for changing the treaty later this afternoon. The bloc is expected to say it is prepared to dramatically reduce the number of checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

However, it is not expected to compromise on the UK demand to scale back the role of the European Court Of Justice, which Frost said was key to both sides reaching an agreement.

Louise Haigh, Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, said Cummings' tweets last night were an "open admission that stability in Northern Ireland was something to be gambled with whenever it suited" the government.

"This cynical politics is still Boris Johnson’s playbook today, and is causing poisonous instability," she told PoliticsHome. 

"Northern Ireland needs serious solutions in the coming weeks — jobs, stability and livelihoods depend on it."

Varahdkar said they served as a warning to countries which enter agreements with the UK that the government could not be trusted.

“The message must go out to all countries around the world that this is a British government, that doesn't necessarily keep its word doesn't necessarily honor the agreements, it makes," he told RTE.

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