Foreign secretary defends backing protocol deal as she outlines why it needs ripping up
Liz Truss has said she does not regret voting for the Northern Ireland Protocol that she now says is disastrous, suggesting she endorsed it in the expectation it would be changed.
In an interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the Foreign Secretary said that myriad problems were “baked into the protocol”, but then claimed that it was a surprise to see these problems emerge — even though the Government’s own analysis said at the time that many of them would happen.
Ms Truss also said that the Government has legal advice which says that triggering Article 16 cannot achieve much more than the current situation where swathes of the protocol haven’t been implemented.
That undermines her continued threats to use Article 16, although Ms Truss again said that was still possible.
Her comments came as MPs debated and voted for the first time on the bill which would neuter much of the protocol that just two years ago Boris Johnson was trumpeting as a “fantastic” deal and denying that it would involve an Irish Sea border.
However, because of that past dishonesty about the protocol, there is deep scepticism on all sides as to whether the Prime Minister really intends to see this bill into law — something likely to take more than a year — in the face of accusations from the EU and many lawyers that it breaks international law.
When Ms Truss announced the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in May, she said that she was willing to negotiate with the EU, but only if it would secure the same result as the bill.
That message was heard by some unionists as indicating that regardless of whether the protocol was largely dismantled through the bill or — far less likely — through talks with Brussels, much of it would be going.
However, when Ms Truss published the text two weeks ago, there was a subtle change of language. The Foreign Secretary, who is widely thought to be see herself as a likely successor to Mr Johnson, just talked about securing “changes” to the text of the protocol through negotiations — still highly unlikely, given the EU’s position, but no longer referring to the need for those changes to deliver the same outcome as the bill.
However, speaking to this newspaper yesterday, Ms Truss appeared to move back towards her earlier rhetoric, saying that the bill means that businesses in Northern Ireland now have “certainty” about what is going to happen. She said that the Government’s actions mean “people know that by next year this solution will be in place”, describing it as a “durable and robust long-term solution to stop the sense of drift in Northern Ireland with people in Northern Ireland not knowing what’s going to happen”.
When asked if she would accept some change to the protocol rather than all the changes the bill would make, she said: “Well, these issues — and there are four key issues, namely customs and SPS, VAT and state aid, governance and regulation — we need to fix those four issues. Now, if there is a slightly different way of doing that that delivers the result of restoring the balance of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, we would be prepared to look at it.
“But what we’ve seen from the EU so far are solutions that are worse than the current standstill, that would actually mean more bureaucracy… what we need is a solution to those four issues that are fundamentally undermining the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.”
Ms Truss has repeatedly said that there are vast problems with the protocol which require urgent and radical action. However, the Government has not acted to trigger Article 16, which would let it take immediate measures to address those problems on a temporary basis while the bill is passing through Parliament — if indeed that ever happens. When asked why the Government has not done so, Ms Truss said: “We did look closely at triggering Article 16 as an option and there are two problems with it. One is that we wouldn’t be able to achieve much more than we’ve achieved through the current standstill [where grace periods mean swathes of the protocol have never been implemented] in terms of the level of checks.
“And the other issue is that it would have simply kicked the can down the road, created more uncertainty for businesses in NI, and not given a clear sense that there is an outcome that we want to achieve.
“Whereas, what this bill does is very clear about the proposals — the red and green lane, the dual regulatory system, the governance reforms, the VAT reforms — and the businesses of Northern Ireland now have certainty that those issues are going to be dealt with. So Article 16 would not have got us to a point of resolution… we’ve spent 18 months in negotiations with the EU, they haven’t agreed to change the text of the protocol, the situation in Northern Ireland is getting worse and we could not allow this to drift indefinitely.”
Pressed on why Article 16 would not allow the Government to achieve more changes than at present, she said: “It simply doesn’t because we’re already in a position where the Northern Ireland Protocol hasn’t been fully implemented and we have a standstill. We looked at our legal recourse and we were not able to deliver the full solution using Article 16. We still reserve the right to use Article 16 if the circumstances necessitate it over the next few months but the only way — the only belt and braces solution — to delivering the changes that the people of Northern Ireland need is through legislation, and I’m aware that that legislation will take time, but for things that take time it’s better to start today than to start tomorrow.”
There has been huge pressure from the Biden administration in the US, which has made clear that it strongly supports the protocol and is unsympathetic to unionist opposition to the deal. When asked if the Government was really prepared to infuriate the White House by seeing this through to its conclusion, Ms Truss said: “We have to act in the best interests of the United Kingdom. That’s our priority as the UK Government.
“We have a very serious situation where the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is being undermined, we need to put in place a durable solution that fixes that, and that is exactly the point I have made to the US and to all of our other international partners… they [the EU] have to be willing to change the protocol in order to deal with these very real issues that are there.”
The most ardent Brexiteers have identified the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as a key problem, but European Commission vice president Maroš Šefčovič recently told the Belfast Telegraph that Northern Irish firms will almost certainly lose full access to the single market if that is removed.
When asked if the ECJ was a red line or something she could negotiate, Ms Truss said: “That is an important issue for the people of Northern Ireland.
“It’s about making sure that where it is not relevant the CJEU [the Court of Justice of the European Union, of which the ECJ is the most prominent aspect] does not…[and that] the UK is the final arbiter. And that is part of people feeling like they are part of the United Kingdom; that UK courts are the final arbiter.”
Ms Truss said that she accepted the EU court having a role in Northern Ireland where it related to goods being sold into the EU, but that it was “not relevant…for goods traded between Northern Ireland and Great Britain”.
Given the strength of Ms Truss’s arguments against the protocol and her insistence that there must be changes to its text rather than just how that text is interpreted, it might seem that the Foreign Secretary now regrets voting for the protocol. Not so. When asked if she regretted supporting it, she said: “No I don’t. We needed to deliver on Brexit, we needed to get Brexit done.”
Despite the Government’s own advice at the time stating clearly that the protocol would lead to most of the problems which have materialised, she went on: “I don’t think anybody quite envisaged how the protocol would precisely be implemented. I think we went in with the expectation of greater flexibility on the part of the EU which we haven’t seen. But we have to deal with the situation that we have now which is that there is a very serious situation in Northern Ireland; we can’t let that situation drift.”
But if there’s nothing wrong with the text of the protocol and it’s just about its implementation, why is it now necessary to change the text? She said: “I didn’t say that. I said it had unintended consequences that we didn’t envisage at the time and the situation in Northern Ireland is unique… I think our expectation was that we would see more flexibility from the EU, given the history in Northern Ireland, how hard it was to get the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in the first place; we thought that we would see more flexibility in being willing to change the text.
“International treaties change all the time — it’s very normal for those treaties to change… it’s perfectly normal if an international agreement is not working effectively to change the text of that international agreement and one would expect one’s partner to be willing to do that, given the serious situation we’re facing.”
But when she voted for the protocol, she did not think it meant an Irish Sea border? Ms Truss paused for several seconds before responding: “We did not anticipate the level of bureaucracy which would be put in place as a result of it.”
Even though that’s what the Government’s own assessments at the time said? A press officer intervened to say that the interview had over-run, but after the question was put again Ms Truss said: “I’m dealing with the situation as it is now where we have seen trade diminished from east to west, where we’ve seen businesses stopping sending goods to Northern Ireland, where we’ve not had the institutions of Northern Ireland functioning since February.
“That is the situation I’m dealing with and it’s my responsibility to sort that out.”