The writer is the British Foreign Secretary
The Northern Ireland Protocol currently undermines the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, the foundation of peace and political stability. Along with its many practical problems, it has created a growing sense that the rights and aspirations of parts of the community are being undermined.
Ideally, we would resolve these issues through negotiation, but the EU has ruled out changing the text of the protocol. Northern Ireland has been without a fully functioning executive since February due to protocol, at a time of a cost of living crisis and many other challenges.
It is therefore the duty of this government, as a co-signatory and co-guarantor of the agreement, but also as a sovereign government in Northern Ireland, to act.
We are moving forward with legislation to address the specific issues the protocol causes while maintaining the parts that work. It is both necessary and legal. All other options in the current EU mandate are currently exhausted.
We will address issues in four areas: customs and agri-food controls; regulation; control of subsidies and VAT; and governance. On customs, this bill creates a system of green and red lanes. This means that goods destined only for Northern Ireland will be free of bureaucracy while those heading to the EU will go through full customs procedures.
All data will be shared with the EU in real time as the goods leave Britain. We already have this system in place and are doing demonstrations to businesses and the EU to show how it works. Any trader violating the lanes will face penalties. Our solution protects the EU single market and leaves the EU no worse off than it is today.
Our bill will establish a dual regulation regime so that companies can choose between meeting UK or EU standards. This removes barriers to goods made to British standards being sold in Northern Ireland.
I know how much this matters to businesses on the ground. Carriers told me about the stacks of paperwork they have to complete to bring goods from Britain. I have heard of retailers such as Asda whose goods are still subject to checks on their way to Larne, despite having no stores in the Republic of Ireland to which they could go.
We will also ensure, through this bill, that the government can set UK-wide policies on subsidy and VAT control, to ensure the traditional role that government has played in supporting the economy of Northern Ireland. We will remove the role of the European Court of Justice in areas where it is not relevant, including its role as final arbiter of disputes, to standardize governance arrangements on the model of other such treaties.
We have to solve these problems one way or another. Our first choice was – and remains – to renegotiate the text of the protocol. This would be entirely consistent with the evolution of other international treaties.
The protocol was not permanently set in stone at the signing. It explicitly recognizes the need for possible new arrangements under the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
We therefore need the EU to modify its mandate and accept the need to modify the protocol itself, as has always been intended. We are ready to begin these negotiations and ready to implement the results through this legislation. However, we cannot afford to delay. Given where we are, the only way to enforce the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and solve the problems in Northern Ireland is through legislation.
Once it is done, we will have a solution that will ensure that the agreement is respected in all its dimensions, helping to restore the balance between the communities and honor our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, the UK and the EU can focus all their efforts on working together on issues like Ukraine for the good not just of Europe but of the world.