UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday stepped up his calls on the EU to agree to scrap “pointless” checks on goods entering Northern Ireland under the region’s post Brexit trading regime.
Johnson’s remarks came after former UK premier Tony Blair, who signed the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland, said the post Brexit trading arrangements finalised by Johnson were a “bad deal” that risked undermining the peace accord.
Johnson has indicated he is willing to take unilateral action to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol contained in his Brexit deal with the EU — which requires checks on goods going to the region from Great Britain — unless Brussels agrees to sweeping changes. The two sides have been in protracted talks about a possible compromise on the protocol.
The post Brexit trading regime has sparked a political crisis in Northern Ireland, with the biggest unionist force, the Democratic Unionist party, boycotting the region’s assembly and government following elections last month.
Johnson is preparing legislation that would enable the UK to set aside parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, including the section covering trade.
The UK prime minister told Mumsnet, an online parenting forum: “All that we’re trying to do is to get rid of some pretty pointless and bureaucratic checks on stuff that’s going from GB to Northern Ireland.
“Now, I did the [Northern Ireland] protocol, I negotiated it. The problem is that I thought that it would be implemented with common sense and pragmatism.”
Among other proposed changes to the protocol, the UK wants the EU to agree that no checks should be done on goods coming from Great Britain that are staying in Northern Ireland.
Blair called for “maximum flexibility” from the two sides to try to reach an agreement on the protocol.
He said that “if left unresolved, the issues at the heart of the protocol have the capability of causing an enlarged trade conflict between the UK and the EU, or undermining the Good Friday Agreement — and quite possibly both”.
Johnson has also said the protocol is undermining the peace accord.
But Mary Lou McDonald, leader of the nationalist Sinn Féin party which won the elections in Northern Ireland last month, rubbished the notion that the Good Friday Agreement was at risk because of the protocol.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” she said in Brussels, where she and party vice-president Michelle O’Neill met EU Brexit negotiator Maroš Šefčovič.
McDonald said the protocol was “necessary” and was working, and accused Johnson’s government of acting in “bad faith”.
The Good Friday Agreement underpinned an open border on the island of Ireland as part of efforts to preserve peace.
Under Johnson’s Brexit deal, Northern Ireland was left in the EU single market for goods and checks were introduced on products entering the region from Great Britain.
Northern Ireland’s unionist parties object to how the deal introduced a border in the Irish Sea, saying it undermines the region’s status as part of the UK.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson called on the EU to “take note and recognise the harm the [Northern Ireland] protocol is doing to political stability”.
Thomas Byrne, Ireland’s minister for Europe, appealed for British ministers to talk to their Irish counterparts to build trust and find a solution to the Northern Ireland protocol.
“The UK-Ireland relationship is a foundation of the peace process,” he said. “It is essential it should be maintained and nurtured. It is not being at the moment.”
He played down the prospect of swift retaliation by Brussels to any UK unilateral action on the Northern Ireland protocol.