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Publication of NI Protocol Bill confirms it would wash away much of the Irish Sea border

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The UK Government has published new legislation to change the NI Protocol.

The UK Government has published new legislation to change the NI Protocol.

PA

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss

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The UK Government has published new legislation to change the NI Protocol.

The publication of the Government’s long-awaited bill to amend the NI Protocol has confirmed that the legislation will fundamentally alter the deal Boris Johnson agreed with the EU less than three years ago.

The development has prompted fury in Dublin, Brussels and other EU capitals and it is still far from clear that the legislation which had its first reading in the House of Commons this evening will ever make it on to the statute book. If that does happen, it could be a year away – meaning that there is no immediate solution to the practical problems arising from the Irish Sea border.

The legislation is complex and convoluted; it will take time to fully understand what it will mean for the myriad aspects of life which the protocol impacts.

The bill in full can be read here.

However, Government briefings this morning ahead of the bill’s publication have played up its sweeping significance. It is difficult to reconcile what Government figures have been saying privately – that the bill will radically alter the protocol – with what Prime Minister Boris Johnson was saying this morning when he claimed that it was a “relatively trivial” alteration of the protocol.

In a written statement, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss – who has been the driving force behind the legislation, with Mr Johnson far more reluctant about altering the protocol in such sweeping ways – said that it would uphold the Belfast Agreement and “support political stability in Northern Ireland”.

Insisting that it was a “reasonable, practical solution to the problems facing Northern Ireland” which would ensure there was no hard Irish border, she added: “It will end the untenable situation where people in Northern Ireland are treated differently to the rest of the United Kingdom, protect the supremacy of our courts and our territorial integrity.”

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The Foreign Secretary repeated her offer of talks with the EU to negotiate on the issue – but only if that meant the EU being willing to change the text of the protocol, something Brussels has repeatedly said it will not consider.

This afternoon a majority of MLAs – from Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Alliance – wrote to the prime minister to oppose the Government’s legislation, telling him that “whilst not ideal, the protocol currently represents the only available protections for Northern Ireland from the worst impacts” of the hard Brexit he had pursued.

At the heart of the new plan is a new “green and red lane approach backed by commercial data and a trusted trader scheme” – with the green lane for goods staying in NI and the red lane for items at risk of going on to the Republic or for traders not in the trusted trader scheme.
Non-commercial goods such as post and parcels would automatically go through the green lane. Strong penalties would be used to discourage abuse of the green lane, with a government briefing saying: “Traders who abuse the new system will face robust penalties, including civil and criminal charges—and would not be able to use the green lane in the event of non-compliance.”

The Government said this approach would mean that “goods staying in the UK would be freed of unnecessary paperwork, checks and duties, with only ordinary commercial information required rather than customs processes or complex certification requirements for agrifood products”

As briefed last week, the bill would allow for “a dual-regulatory regime that gives choice to NI business…goods can be placed on the market in NI if they meet either UK rules, EU rules, or both— ensuring that consumers can access the products they want, and avoiding gaps on supermarket shelves.”

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed the Government’s move, saying that it was long overdue. But EU vice president Maros Sefcovic said that the EU would consider restarting the legal action which it began last year over past unilateral grace periods which the Government put in place, and consider fresh legal action.


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