A group of Conservative MPs have called on the government to scrap post-Brexit arrangements for the Irish border.
In a 38-page report, the European Research Group (ERG) of Tory Brexiteers concluded that the Northern Ireland Protocol “has had a profound and negative effect”.
They said the Protocol, which was agreed as part of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement, had harmed both the UK’s internal market and the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.
But they were immediately accused of “dishonesty” after they voted in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement in January last year.
In their challenge to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the ERG said the UK government “can and should act in the interests of Northern Ireland”, with the Protocol “contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement”.
They called on ministers to trigger Article 16 of the Protocol and to work on draft legislation to “ensure free trade within the UK”.
Article 16 is intended to be used when the Protocol – designed to avoid a post-Brexit hard border on the island of Ireland – is unexpectedly leading to serious “economic, societal or environmental difficulties”.
It allows the UK or the EU to act unilaterally to avoid these difficulties.
Last month, EU officials controversially threatened to trigger Article 16 as part of a row with COVID vaccine manufacturers, before swiftly abandoning the plan amid outrage from Belfast, Dublin and London.
In their report, which was produced with the help of Brexit-focussed lawyers, the ERG said UK law “must be changed to give the government the power to disapply the Northern Ireland Protocol and implement an alternative”.
They claimed the EU’s intention to use Article 16 itself had “brought the issue to a head”.
ERG chairman Mark Francois said: “We will no doubt be told that the EU will never renegotiate the Protocol – just as we were repeatedly assured they would never reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, or indeed abandon the dreaded ‘backstop’, which the Protocol eventually replaced when they subsequently did both.”
In an effort to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland, the Protocol allows Northern Ireland to remain under some EU rules.
But this means there has to be customs declarations on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, including checks on some products.
Since the end of the Brexit transition period on 1 January, businesses have blamed the new requirements for shortages of some products in Northern Ireland.
The Democratic Unionist Party – who did not support the Withdrawal Agreement at Westminster – have already called for the UK to trigger Article 16 and scrap the Protocol in order to remove barriers to unfettered trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
DUP leader and Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster this week said the arrangement had “completely ruptured the flow of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland”.
But, in a joint statement following a meeting on Wednesday, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said both sides were committed to the “proper implementation of the Protocol”, rather than scrapping it.
Asked about the ERG’s intervention on Thursday, the prime minister’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, said there were “outstanding problems with the Protocol” but that “discussions are ongoing”.
Louise Haigh, Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary, said: “The ERG – and this cannot be stressed enough – voted for this.
“This was the deal they demanded, for the Brexit they chose. Now they would rather tear things down, and provoke further instability, than show even a hint of responsibility.
“Brexit posed challenges, challenges that these people were never brave enough to admit. Their dishonesty has cost Northern Ireland and now their recklessness risks more instability.”
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