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Government Accused Of Pandering To DUP As Tory Rebels Prepare For Fight Over Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

6 min read

The government has been accused of ignoring the majority of Stormont's political parties in the process of writing legislation that is designed to override the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The bill, which Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is set to unveil to the House of Commons on Monday, is expected to trigger a row with a number of Conservative MPs who believe the plan risks breaking international law, and is also strongly opposed by the European Union.

The government argues, however, that it needs to take this action in order to protect the Good Friday peace agreement and get the government in Belfast up and running.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is blocking the formation of an Executive over its opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was agreed as part of Brexit talks. 

The treaty was designed to avoid a contentious hard border on the island of Ireland, but resulted in new barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The UK and EU are committed to reducing these barriers, but have failed to agree changes after many months of negotiations.

Material leaked to PoliticsHome this weekend suggests the legislation will be met with fierce opposition when it is unveiled tomorrow.

In an email sent to government officials on Friday, and seen by PoliticsHome, Alliance party leader Naomi Long says "only one" political party in Northern Ireland – the DUP – has been "central to the preparation of this legislation".

Long in her email declines the offer of a technical briefing on the bill, arguing that the government had treated Northern Ireland's political parties in a "differential manner" in its approach.

Her email reads: "We are fully aware that one, and only one, NI political party has been central to the preparation of this legislation.

"We are, therefore, not interested in offering the government's approach any veneer of credibility, given the fact that it has been treating NI parties in a differential manner and ignoring the expressed views of a majority of NI elected representatives, businesses and civil society on this matter".

A government source hit back at the email, telling PoliticsHome that Long's characterisation of the government's engagement with Northern Ireland political parties was "inaccurate".

"It is disappointing that Naomi Long is the only party leader to reject the offer of a technical briefing on the Government’s Protocol legislation. It is designed in the best interests of all the people and businesses in Northern Ireland.

"We have engaged with all the parties throughout this process, to suggest otherwise is inaccurate".

PoliticsHome can also reveal that Conservative MPs who are opposed to the government's plan to unilaterally override the Northern Ireland Protocol have this weekend been circulating a briefing document which sets out why they intend to vote against the bill.

The document, which lists "the problems with the bill" and what Boris Johnson "should do instead", says it is "damaging to everything the UK and the Conservatives stand for".

It reads: "Breaking international law to rip up the Prime Minister’s own Treaty is damaging to everything the UK and Conservatives stand for. We are a country that acts with integrity and honours the agreements we sign.

"A Bill with ‘notwithstanding’ clauses disapplying our own ratification legislation breaks international law: no amount of shopping around for rent-a-quote lawyers can hide that Labour’s decision to do this over Iraq was damagingly exposed and should be a cautionary tale."

This week PoliticsHome reported that First Treasury Counsel James Eadie, the government's most senior independent lawyer, had not been asked for his opinion on whether the legislation breached international law, and that in his view it is "very difficult" for ministers to argue that it doesn't.

The government insists that its plan to alter the protocol without an agreement with the EU does not break international law.

Brandon Lewis, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, on Sunday morning said the legislation "was within international law" and that the government would publish its legal position. 

He said: "We're doing this because it's the right thing to do for the people of Northern Ireland - the whole community of Northern Ireland, respecting and reflecting the fact that all the party leaders in Northern Ireland have been clear that there are problems with the protocol that needs to be resolved".

The Tory rebel briefing adds that the plan is "fundamentally damaging" to the Union and could lead to a growing number of people in Northern Ireland supporting breaking away from the UK. 

"The principle of consent in the Good Friday Agreement means a majority of people in Northern Ireland can choose whether they want to stay in United Kingdom or not," it reads.

"Protecting our precious Union means persuading the moderate centre ground. We are alienating them by pursuing a reckless Bill that is toxic to the very swing voters the Union depends on".

A Conservative MP who opposed the government plans told PoliticsHome: "The government has singularly failed to engage with Northern Ireland parties on this bill.

"Four out of five Northern Ireland parties and Northern Ireland businesses have been largely ignored. Even those parties representing the middle ground voters that we need to persuade to stick with the United Kingdom have been treated with total disdain".

A key ally of President Joe Biden has urged the government to stick with its negotiations with the EU ahead of the legislation being unveiled on Monday.

In an interview with The Parliament Magazine, a sister publication of PoliticsHome, the US ambassador to the EU, Mark Gitenstein, said the Biden administration would prefer to see the UK reach a negotiated outcome with Brussels, rather than take unilateral steps.

"Our primary goal is to keep the Good Friday Agreement alive and functioning," he said.

"It so one of the great accomplishments of diplomacy in the last 50 years. It would be unfortunate if that was jeapordised and if we have to return to negotiations to resolve the differences between the EU and the UK, then we'd be supportive of that.

"We would prefer that the UK didn't disrupt that agreement in any way".

A government spokesperson told PoliticsHome: "We have always been clear that action will be taken to protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement if negotiated solutions cannot be agreed to fix parts of the Protocol that are not working.

"This Bill is guided by our duty as Government to the whole United Kingdom to safeguard peace and stability in Northern Ireland, and nothing else".

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