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UK Has “Scope” To Overhaul Northern Ireland Protocol Without Breaking International Law, Kwasi Kwarteng Claims

The Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said it was “absolutely right” for the UK to take action on the NI protocol (Alamy)

4 min read

The government can change the Northern Ireland Protocol without breaking international law, a senior Cabinet minister has insisted.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng says there is "scope" for a one-sided change within Article 16 of the treaty with the European Union.

His comments come ahead of the Prime Minister Boris Johnson travelling to Belfast on Monday to urge Northern Ireland's politicians to get powersharing back up and running.

The Assembly in Stormont is deadlocked once again after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) blocked the election of a Speaker on Friday, preventing it from sitting, due to their opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The DUP, which is led by Jeffrey Donaldson MP, is refusing to enter government with Sinn Fein until the UK government delivers changes to the post-Brexit arrangements for trade across the Irish Sea.

The Westminster government has been threatening to overhaul the protocol, which resulted in checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and have been blamed for damaging trade and fuelling community tensions, with Brussels warning it could spark a trade war.

Kwarteng told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday it was “absolutely right” for the UK to take action, saying "Article 16 itself says it could be abrogated unilaterally if it’s shown not be working”.

The Cabinet minister said invoking Article 16 would not break international law as the provision is contained within the protocol itself. "When you read it, it says quite clearly there’s a scope to change it unilaterally — unilaterally means that we can do that ourselves without having to reach agreement with the EU," he said.

However, his remarks appeared to suggest a change of thinking among ministers about how best to address their concerns with the Northern Ireland Protocol.

While Kwarteng this morning discussed the potential triggering of Article 16, in recent days the government had briefed the prospect of a different course of action: changing the protocol through new legislation.

Kwarteng also sought to play down fears of trade retaliation from the EU, saying Brussels will not be slap tariffs on British goods "arbitrarily” and that imposing further barriers to trade would “take a very long time”.

The government has been warned that creating a trade war with Brussels would only exacerbate the ongoing cost of living crisis by further driving up the prices of everyday items.

David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, on Saturday condemnded ministers for risking trade retaliation from the EU at "the worst possible time".

However, Kwarteng argued that "political stability in Northern Ireland is our number one priority".

He said: "We should be able to act in a sovereign way. Northern Ireland is as much of the United Kingdom as England, Cornwall, the South east, and we are responsible for that".

Johnson will use meetings with party leaders in Stormont on Monday to deliver a "tough message" that any "fix" to the Northern Ireland Protocol must involve the parties coming together to form an Executive and Assembly.

The Prime Minister is expected to say while the UK Government will "play its part to ensure political stability", politicians must "get back to work" so they can deliver on "bread and butter issues" for the voters.

However Sinn Fein, now the largest party in the assembly for the first time after this month’s elections, accused Johnson of being "in cahoots" with DUP and supporting its "blocking tactics".

Mary Lou McDonald, the party’s president, said: "It is very dangerous, it's reckless, it's a game of brinkmanship, very cynically carried out by a Tory government in London that has no care for the island of Ireland, north or south.”

She added: "Let's just be clear that the protocol is going nowhere. The protocol is a necessary outworking of Brexit for which the Tory party and the DUP campaigned.

"The British Government cannot use Ireland as a pawn, we won't be the collateral damage in the Brexit negotiations.

"It is very clear that the Tory government in London is in cahoots with the DUP to stall and to hold back progress, to frustrate the will of the people as expressed in the election and that, to anybody who calls themselves a democrat, is clearly unacceptable and clearly shameful."

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