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Ministers In No Rush To Pass Northern Ireland Protocol Bill As Talks With EU Near Climax

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (Alamy)

4 min read

The government is reluctant to press ahead with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill as there are fears it could undermine a key few weeks in its negotiations with the European Union.

The legislation, introduced by former prime minister Boris Johnson, would give ministers the contentious powers to unilaterally disapply parts of the post-Brexit treaty. Rishi Sunak has vowed to press ahead with the bill if talks with Brussels fail to produce an acceptable outcome.

The legislation, which has been the source of considerable acrimony between the two sides, is currently waiting to enter report stage in the House of Lords, and is expected to face dozens of amendments.

However, while No 10 has not "officially" halted the legislation's journey through Parliament, there is no urgency to get it through the second chamber while talks with European Commission over the Northern Ireland Protocol edge closer to a negotiated settlement.

“It would be really unhelpful to have amendments played out in the House of Lords while the UK team is in the room with the EU," a Whitehall source told PoliticsHome. “It’s not that the bill has been officially paused. There just hasn’t been a push for it to go back on the order paper."

Any government move to deprioritise the passage of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill would risk angering staunch Brexiteers in the European Research Group of Conservative MPs, who want the Prime Minister to take a hard line with Brussels over the treaty. 

Last week, the UK's former chief Brexit negotiator Lord Frost and ex-government adviser, Hugh Bennett, who was part of Frost's negotiating team, warned Sunak against any move to shelve the legislation in a joint plea.

"It’s entirely reasonable for the government to see if it can reach a worthwhile deal with the EU over Northern Ireland, but it has already weakened its hand to get one by halting the Protocol Bill.

“So it’s crucial it doesn’t abandon the powers in the Bill altogether, in case it can’t get a deal or in case a deal comes apart under pressure later – which is all too likely given the EU’s obtuseness over Northern Ireland so far," Frost told The Telegraph.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed as part of Brexit negotations as a way of avoiding a contentious hard border on the island of Ireland. It did so by erecting new barriers to trade between Great Britain and the Northern Ireland in the Irish Sea, which both sides are commited to reducing.

Despite public denials, hopes are rising that the two sides are close to reaching an agreement on how to reform the treaty after a stand-off dating back to early 2021, with negotiations between UK and EU officials set to continue this week.

Prime Minister Sunak was briefed on the framework of a possible agreement with the EU late last month, PoliticsHome understands, while The Times reported that the two sides had made significant progress on customs checks and the role of European Court of Justice. PoliticsHome reported last month that was growing optimism that a deal could be done by mid February.

A No 10 spokesperson continued to refuse to comment on speculation on Monday, however, and insisted that there was "still significant work to be done" in the talks between the UK and the EU. 

"I'm not going to get into commenting on that [speculation] while discussions take place," they said.

If, as expected, the two sides do reach an agreement, Sunak's subsequent challenge will be securing the backing of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is blocking the formation of a government in Stormont over its opposition to the treaty, as well as Tory MPs in the ERG.

Ian Paisley Jr, the DUP MP for North Antrim, warned this morning that the reported details of a possible UK-EU deal would not satisfy his party. He told the BBC's The Nolan Show he "could not see" how the DUP would agree to get Northern Ireland's institutions back and up-and-running if the ECJ continued to have jurisdiction in the region.

The DUP and ERG are in close dialogue as negotiations approach a conclusion.

DUP leader Donaldson spoke at ERG meeting last month, PoliticsHome reported, while senior ERG members Jacob Rees Mogg and John Renwood have backed a DUP motion calling on the government to scrap plans to construct of post-Brexit border posts at Northern Irish ports.

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