Brexit: UK threatens to suspend Northern Ireland protocol – how would it work?

Northern Ireland: UK 'can't have protocol and executive' says MP

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The Northern Ireland protocol has been the subject of long, drawn out re-negotiations between the UK and European Union (EU) ever since it was agreed to. Britain, backed by unionists in Belfast, believes the legislation has created an Irish sea border. But the election of a nationalist Sinn Fein majority administration last week has created new uncertainty around how a resolution could be reached.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told reporters on Tuesday that proposals submitted by the EU in recent months “fail to properly address the real issues affecting Northern Ireland”, while some “would take us backward”.

She added: “Prices have risen, trade is being badly disrupted, and the people of Northern Ireland are subject to different laws and taxes than those over the Irish Sea, which has left them without an executive and poses a threat to peace and stability.

“The answer cannot be more checks, paperwork and disruption.

“Our preference has always been for a negotiated solution but will not shy away from taking action to stabilise the situation in Northern Ireland if solutions cannot be found.”

How could Britain default on the protocol?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Ms Truss have reportedly given the green light for a major new piece of legislation, which would allow it to unilaterally scrap parts of the existing protocol.

The bill was not announced during the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday, but is expected to give MPs the power to switch off border checks on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Maros Sefcovic said in a statement: “The protocol, as a cornerstone of the Withdrawal Agreement, is an international agreement.

“Its renegotiation is not an option. The European Union is united in this position.”

Alternatively, the Government could look to trigger Article 16 of the existing deal, which can be activated if either the UK or EU feel that the protocol is leading to significant issues or hampering their capacity to trade.

The component sets out the process for taking unilateral “safeguard” measures, which in reality would amount to suspending parts of the deal.

Specifically, Article 16 says safeguard measures can be taken if the protocol is leading to serious “economic, societal or environmental difficulties” that are liable to persist.

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The Government is now coming under fresh pressure to secure an agreement after elections were held in Northern Ireland’s General Assembly last week.

Sinn Fein became the largest party at Stormont and has previously stated its opposition to any changes that could affect the free flow of goods between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Its election victory could weaken Mr Johnson’s negotiating hand with the EU, which has so far refused to lower its demands.

On Monday, Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill said: “Brinkmanship will not be tolerated when Northern Ireland becomes collateral damage in a game of chicken with the European Commission.

“Responsibilities for finding solutions to the Protocol lie with Boris Johnson and the EU.

“But make no mistake, we and our businessmen here will not be held for ransom.”

Meanwhile, the need to form a Northern Irish executive has cranked up the urgency in Downing Street to find a resolution to the Northern Ireland protocol.

At present, Sinn Fein is being frustrated as the second biggest party – the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – is refusing to enter a power sharing arrangement, until its concerns regarding changes to the protocol have been addressed.

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