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Cabinet ministers are split over whether to rip up post-Brexit rules for Northern Ireland amid pressure for swift action to help implement a power-sharing administration at Stormont.
‘Hawks’ and ‘doves’ around the Cabinet table are at odds over Britain taking unilateral action to scrap key parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, it has emerged.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is reported to be leading a push for the UK to act alone in overriding the Brexit deal.
But she is being opposed by Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, according to the Telegraph.
Ms Truss has been claimed to believe the EU will ‘never’ back down over its refusal to significantly re-work the Protocol.
EU vice-president Maros Sefcovic, who is leading Brussels’ negotiations with the Britain on the issue, this weekend showed little appetite for compromise as he warned the UK to be ‘honest about the deal they signed’.
The pressure for a solution to the UK’s row with the EU over post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland has been ramped up by the results of last week’s elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly.
For the first time ever, a nationalist party became the largest at Stormont after Sinn Fein won the most seats.
However, the prospects for a devolved government being established are gloomy as the DUP has refused to say whether it will form a power-sharing administration due to the unionist party’s opposition to the Protocol.
The election results have also increased speculation over the possibility of Irish unification, although Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has moved to dismiss the prospect of a border poll.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is said to be leading a push for the UK to act alone in overriding the Northern Ireland Protocol
Ms Truss is reportedly being opposed by Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has moved to dismiss the prospect of a border poll amid speculation about the possibility of Irish unification
For the first time ever, a nationalist party became the largest at Stormont after Michelle O’Neill’s Sinn Fein won the most seats.
The Protocol was designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit and imposed checks on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.
But the EU’s ‘dogmatic’ and ‘rigid’ implementation of the Protocol has been blamed by British ministers for causing significant trade disruption.
Mr Lewis is today meeting the leaders of Northern Ireland parties to press for the return of devolved government.
Ahead of his talks, Mr Lewis said there was a need to ‘address the outstanding issues’ relating to the Protocol.
He reiterated the UK Government’s warning that, should ongoing talks with the EU over reform of the Protocol not be successful, Britain could go it alone in tearing up the post-Brexit rules.
‘We want to do that by agreement with the EU, but as we have always made clear, we will not shy away from taking further steps if necessary,’ Mr Lewis said.
According to the Telegraph, those Cabinet ministers pushing for unilateral action want a package of measures including ‘red and green lanes’ for goods travelling to Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, ‘trusted trader schemes’ to manage hauliers travelling only to Northern Ireland, and heavy legal penalties for those who import goods to the Republic that were meant to remain in Northern Ireland.
But the newspaper said Mr Gove wanted talks with the EU to last ‘longer’ and for the UK to take a ‘slightly softer approach’.
And Mr Sunak was reported to have ‘always had a problem with unilateral action’ because of concerns that it could cause a trade war with the EU that would worsen the cost-of-living crisis.
Boris Johnson’s own view on when to take unilateral action over the Protocol has been described as the ‘million-dollar question’ within Government.
Ms Truss and Mr Sefcovic are due to hold fresh talks on the Protocol within days, but the EU vice-president has issued a warning that Brussels will only move so far ont he post-Brexit deal.
He told Politico that the EU had ‘already shown a lot of flexibility by proposing impactful, durable solutions and we stand ready to continue discussions’.
‘We need the UK Government to dial down the rhetoric, be honest about the deal they signed and agree to find solutions within its framework,’ he added.
Ms Truss and Maros Sefcovic are due to hold fresh talks on the Protocol within days, but the EU vice-president has issued a warning that Brussels will only move so far ont he post-Brexit deal
Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, today refused to put a timetable on when a decision would be made over the future of the Protocol but confirmed that scrapping the agreement was ‘on the table as one of the options’.
‘I am not going to put an arbitrary figure of a number of days, that would be foolish, I think, on my behalf, but what I will say is that we’re working at pace, we want to get this done as quickly as possible,’ she told Sky News.
‘We want a functioning executive in Northern Ireland and we understand the extreme urgency of this.”
Ms Donelan added: ‘The Northern Ireland Protocol is not working in the way that we had intended it to do so and we’ve been very open and frank about that one … the level of bureaucracy that is being placed on Northern Ireland’s businesses is not acceptable.’
Yesterday, Mr Lewis was quizzed about the prospect of an Irish unification vote in the wake of Sinn Fein’s historic victory in the Stormont elections.
But the Northern Ireland Secretary, who has the power to call a border poll, played down the chances of a referendum being held.
He highlighted how the nationalist vote has not gone up, and the unionist vote remains higher.
‘Sinn Fein haven’t gained seats, we haven’t seen a growth in the nationalist vote and indeed the unionist vote is still larger and the number of seats held by unionist parties is still larger,’ Mr Lewis told BBC Northern Ireland’s Sunday Politics programme.
‘I think the focus at the moment quite rightly is on getting Stormont back up and running, getting the money that is moving from the UK Government to Northern Ireland out to people in Northern Ireland so we can move forward on domestic issues, get the healthcare reform that people want to see and we want to get the protocol resolved for everyone in Northern Ireland.’