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Labour Warns Triggering Article 16 Would Unleash "Poisonous Instability" On Northern Ireland

3 min read

Labour has urged Boris Johnson to step back from the brink in his stand-off with the European Union over the Northern Ireland Protocol, warning that triggering Article 16 of the treaty would unleash "poisonous instability" in the province.

In a speech in Belfast on Thursday, Louise Haigh, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, will urge the government to reach an agreement with the EU on post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, amid a growing expectation in Brussels that the Prime Minister will escalate tensions in the next few weeks by unilaterally suspending parts of the treaty.

Haigh will say that triggering Article 16 will only "prolong and deepen" uncertainty in Northern Ireland — not abate it — and that the move is opposed by most communities and businesses in the province. 

She will accuse ministers of misrepresenting the views of people in Northern Ireland, a majority of whom want an agreed settlement with the EU, "not a stand-off".

"The government must not ventriloquise for people and for communities who they have shown little understanding of," she will say, speaking at the George J. Mitchell Institute for Peace.

Talks between UK and EU officials over the Northern Ireland Protocol are continuing in London this week, with the two sides trying to overcome major disagreements about how the treaty should be implemented. 

Cabinet Office minister Lord Frost, who handles the UK's post-Brexit relations with the EU, has repeatedly warned in recent weeks that the conditions for triggering Article 16 have already been met. On Wednesday he told peers that the government would be left with no option but to do so if Brussels didn't satisfy UK demands in the "short number of weeks" ahead.The Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed by Johnson and the EU as part of Brexit negotiations, has been the source of months of tension between UK and Brussels since it came into effect at the start of the 2021.

It was designed to avoid a contentious hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and did so by keeping Northern Ireland in the EU's trading rules.

However, the government argues it is causing an unacceptable level of disruption to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and wants the text totally rewritten.

Brussels says it is willing to make significant changes to how the Northern Ireland Protocol operates but is not willing to make a number of changes demanded by the UK, particularly its call for the European Court of Justice to be removed of its role.

Speaking on Thursday afternoon, Haigh will warn the Prime Minister that triggering Article 16 would be taking "another huge risk with stability" in Northern Ireland, where community tensions have been exacerbated by Brexit and the fact that its fragile government is currently at risk of collapse.

She will warn that "jobs and livelihoods" in the province are also at stake, with a UK move to invoke Article 16 expected to trigger a trade war between the government and Brussels. 

Several European leaders have warned that triggering Article 16 could prompt the EU to suspend its wider post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU in retaliation. This would result in tariffs being imposed on British goods heading for the continent and a new array of red tape. 

Haigh will launch a wider attack on the government's approach to Northern Ireland, arguing that it has lost the trust of communities there as a result of London "protecting its own political self-interest" and playing "partisan politics" with the Good Friday peace agreement.

The shadow minister has called on both sides to bring Northern Irish business and community leaders into negotiations so they can "speak for themselves".

"It is simply untenable for a government in Westminster, that few in Northern Ireland trust, to decide the future of communities who are excluded from the room.

"To say to the people of Northern Ireland – this is what we've decided: take it or leave it," she will say today.

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