Minister Insists US Has "A Growing Understanding" Of The UK's Impatience With Northern Ireland Protocol
US politicians are warming to the UK position on wanting to overhaul the Northern Ireland Protocol, which risks a major diplomatic row with the European Union, according to the government minister for the province.
The UK government is believed to be preparing to take unilateral action on the trade agreement, which has remained a major sticking point in post-Brexit relations with the EU.
Northern Ireland minister Conor Burns, who is in Washington meeting with US counterparts this week, told PoliticsHome he had picked up a "growing understanding of where the UK is coming from" in his conversations with US politicians.
President Joe Biden has previously urged the UK and EU to reach a negotiated settlement on the protocol, which has bedeviled post-Brexit relations between London and Brussels for months.
Earlier today a spokesperson for the White House urged Boris Johnson not to unilaterally change the treaty, and instead keep faith in talks with the European Commission.
“The best path forward is a pragmatic one that requires courage, co-operation and leadership,” they told The Times. "We urge the parties to continue engaging in dialogue to resolve differences and bring negotiations to a successful conclusion."
The government is understood to be preparing to unilaterally overhaul the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland through primary legislation, arguing that the EU is not prepared to make the changes necessary to reduce disruption to trade across the Irish Sea to acceptable levels.
On Tuesday night Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, appeared to lay the groundwork for the government to take unilateral action, saying the proposals put forward by the EU do not address the problems "and in some cases would take us backward".
PoliticsHome reported on Monday that the Cabinet was "very close" to reaching an agreement on how best to address the protocol, although ministers had not made a final decision.
Speaking in Sweden today, the Prime Minister said the protocol does not command cross-community support in Northern Ireland and that the government "need to sort it out".
The Democratic Unionist Party is blocking the formation of an Executive in Belfast, following last week's Northern Ireland Assembly election, in which they became the second largest party after Sin Feinn, over their opposition to the protocol.
Speaking to PoliticsHome on Wednesday, Burns said that while the government "wants to continue to talk", it would not be able to do so until the EU gives its negotiator on the protocol, European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic, a fresh mandate to be more flexible.
On the subject of concerns in Washington about the UK taking unilateral action, Burns said: "There is a growing understanding of where the UK is coming from.
"But let be my clear: I’m not in Washington and other parts of the US in the coming weeks with any particular ask. I’m here to help develop understanding of the context of the challenge and crucially, what is at risk."
He stressed that the protocol continuing to operate in its latest form, which the government says has forced at least 200 British retailers to stop delivering to Northern Ireland, was the biggest obstacle to stability in the province.
“Next year is the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement and I hope we can invite President Biden to Northern Ireland to lead the international celebrations of those momentous agreements that have transformed the lives of people in Northern Ireland," he said.
"But the message is clear: the protocol is now the biggest risk to ongoing stability, political stability in Northern Ireland and we have to fix it. The Americans are heavily invested in the stability, prosperity and peace in Northern Ireland".
The government has been warned that taking unilateral action on the protocol will prompt the EU to retaliate through legal action and by imposing costly barriers on British trade.
Several European leaders have already publicly criticised the plan. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned Johnson not to "scrap or break or in any way change" the treaty agreed as part of Brexit talks, while Belgium's prime minister Alexander De Croo said: "Don't touch this".
Speaking in Belfast today, Ireland's foreign minister Simon Coveney, said a report by The Times that Truss was preparing to table legislation next week that is designed to override the protocol "has gone down really badly across the EU".
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