James Cleverly has been warned the EU will “smell weakness” if the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is delayed. DUP MP Ian Paisley today urged the Foreign Secretary to push ahead with the proposed legislation.
The Bill gives Britain powers to unilaterally override the post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Mr Paisley’s warning comes after reports the Bill will not return to the Lords this year to give negotiators from the UK and the EU time to thrash out an agreement ahead of April’s commemorations of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement.
Speaking during Foreign Office questions in the Commons, Mr Paisley said: “Isn’t it the case Foreign Secretary that there’s not been one hour of actual negotiations because the EU has not extended its mandate to allow for any changes whatsoever in the operation of the current protocol.
“That being the case, does he not believe that the EU smells weakness in this Government if they take their foot off the pedal with regards to the Protocol Bill in the other place?
“I would encourage the Foreign Secretary to press on with the Protocol Bill.”
Mr Cleverly replied: “I can assure the honorable gentleman that the UK negotiating team are very conscious of the frustrations, particularly in the unionist community in Northern Ireland.
“But we’ve also made the point to the EU that across communities in Northern Ireland there is a recognition that the Protocol is not working, that it needs to be addressed and that the relationship between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and the relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in which Northern Ireland is a part, all have to function properly.
“That’s the underpinning of the Belfast Good Friday agreement and that’s what we seek to achieve through our negotiations.”
Elsewhere doing Foreign Office questions, Mr Cleverly said the Government is continuing to negotiate with Brussels over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements and will keep the Bill on the table.
Labour former minister Hilary Benn said: “We read that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is on ice while the negotiations continue.
“Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that if an agreement with the EU is reached, and we all hope it will happen, that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill will be dropped?”
Mr Cleverly replied: “The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill exists for a reason. The commitment that I made to Maros Sefcovic and the conversations that I had with him and with others is that we would not either artificially accelerate that process or artificially hinder or retard that process.
“We have always said that our preferred option is through negotiations.
“We speak regularly, the tone is positive and I think that there is now an understanding that the concerns that we have raised and have been raised particularly by the unionist community in Northern Ireland are not confected, that they are real and that any agreement would need to address them.”
The Protocol was designed to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic in the wake of Brexit.
But the arrangement has been an ongoing source of tension between the UK and the EU as it has led to checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.