Reported changes to NI protocol by UK criticised as breaking of international law

Nationalist parties speak against move by Johnson and Truss to bring in new legislation

Reports the UK government is planning to introduce new legislation which would allow it to make sweeping changes to the Northern Ireland protocol have been criticised by nationalist parties in the North as the breaking of international law.

The Financial Times reported on Friday that the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, and foreign secretary Liz Truss had in principle signed off on plans to put forward a Bill which would give the UK unilateral powers to switch off key parts of the protocol in UK law, including border checks on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland.

Responding on social media, Michelle O'Neill, Sinn Féin's deputy leader, said the "Tories are completely out of touch with the majority of people in the North who support the protocol, which is a direct consequence of Brexit.

“Once more, any unilateral action on the protocol would derail talks with the EU and breach international law which must be respected,” she said.


The SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, said it demonstrated that a government "led by minsters who broke Covid-19 laws, [who] admitted to breaching international law in a 'limited way' … are now planning further breaches of an international agreement cannot be trusted."

He said Mr Johnson was “desperate to distract from the political turmoil he is experiencing” over the so-called Partygate scandal and this was about shoring up his position in his own party and shoring up the DUP’s position ahead of an election.”

In a statement the DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson reaffirmed the party's position on the Northern Ireland protocol, saying it was "well known".

“The protocol is not supported by unionists and it needs to be replaced with arrangements that respect NI’s place in the UK,” he said.

A senior DUP source was cautious and said the party would wait to see the detail of any legislation but given that no unionist MLA in the last Assembly supported the protocol, they viewed it as recognition by the UK government that it needed to find a solution to the protocol and it was time Brussels and Dublin similarly recognised the protocol was undermining stability in Northern Ireland.

Patience running out

Unionists are opposed to the Northern Ireland protocol – the part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement which avoided a hard Border on the island of Ireland by placing a customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea – because they argue it has caused economic harm and undermined its constitutional position as an integral part of the UK.

Stephen Kelly from Manufacturing NI told The Irish Times his understanding was that drafting of the legislation was "significantly advanced" but the response to it from business would depend on what it contained.

“At the moment we have unilateral extensions to the grace periods, if the UK legislation is about making them permanent then we would find that hard to argue with,” he said.

“I don’t think anybody in business in Northern Ireland would believe that applying the full rigours of EU customs and SPS laws on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland is possible or feasible, so our preference would quite clearly be that people would come to compromise and agreement.

“It appears the UK government’s patience in trying to get there is running out and they want to try and move the process forward significantly for domestic and Northern Ireland political reasons.

“If it’s putting in permanence to those grace periods then it would be hard to argue with for us, but if it goes further than that and it’s something that jeopardises the one unique advantage that Northern Ireland has had in its 101-year history then that would be problematic to us,” he said.

Freya McClements

Freya McClements

Freya McClements is Northern Editor of The Irish Times