The UK government is preparing legislation that will give ministers sweeping powers to tear up the post-Brexit deal governing trade in Northern Ireland, risking a fresh confrontation with Brussels.
Two people with knowledge of internal discussions said prime minister Boris Johnson and foreign secretary Liz Truss had in principle signed off on plans to put forward a Northern Ireland bill early in the next parliamentary session, which starts next month.
Whitehall insiders said the Johnson administration was developing the plans partly in anticipation of a new constitutional crisis if the mainly protestant Unionist parties — all of which have rejected the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol — refuse to re-enter the region’s power-sharing executive after the May 5 Northern Ireland Assembly elections.
Under the proposed legislation, which has not yet been presented to the cabinet, ministers would have unilateral powers to switch off key parts of the protocol in UK law, including border checks on goods travelling to the region from Great Britain.
The move is expected to spark anger in Brussels and EU capitals. Last autumn the EU signalled it could suspend its post-Brexit trade deal with the UK if London reneged on its commitments under the protocol.
The planned legislation has echoes of a previous gambit by the Johnson administration in 2020 to set aside parts of the protocol in UK law. This precipitated legal action by the European Commission, which has been paused pending the outcome of negotiations.
One EU diplomat warned that any UK legislation that broke international law at a time when western powers were seeking to present a unified front to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be “utterly irresponsible”.
The diplomat added that Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader, would be delighted. “Given what is at stake in Ukraine and for the west as a whole, this definitely is not the time for gambling away Britain’s reputation as a stalwart of the rules-based international order,” the diplomat said.
A UK government spokesperson said: “No decisions have yet been taken and our overriding priority continues to be the protection of peace and stability in Northern Ireland.”
The deal Johnson agreed with the EU in October 2019 created a trade border in the Irish Sea and left Northern Ireland following EU rules for goods trade, in order to avoid a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The UK government has repeatedly argued the deal is “not sustainable” because it divides the UK’s internal market and unbalances the 1998 Good Friday Agreement peace deal by undermining the region’s links to mainland Britain.
Talks between London and Brussels to resolve differences over the implementation of the protocol have stalled.
The planned legislation is being discussed ahead of highly sensitive local elections in Northern Ireland on May 5, with the nationalist Sinn Féin party on track to become the largest party in the region for the first time.
Insiders with knowledge of internal UK government discussions said the bill would provide ministers with sweeping powers to neuter Articles 5 to 10 of the protocol which are the legal heart of the deal.
Under the protocol the Northern Ireland assembly must vote periodically to give continued consent to Articles 5 to 10, with the first vote due in December 2024.
Insiders said the bill, if passed, would hand ministers the power to ignore the outcome of that vote in UK law.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Brexit opportunities minister, on Wednesday told MPs the UK had the right to take unilateral action if Brussels did not “reform” the protocol and that “wheels are in motion” to that effect, without providing details.
Thomas Byrne, Ireland’s minister for European affairs, criticised Rees-Mogg’s intervention so close to the May 5 elections. “The UK government should allow the election to take place in Northern Ireland without this type of distraction,” he wrote in a tweet.
An EU official said the only way to bring certainty and predictability to Northern Ireland was to agree joint solutions. “Unilateral decisions will never work. The EU has pulled out all the stops over the past months, and is ready to work further with the UK over the coming weeks,” they added.
The UK government spokesperson said: “As we have said consistently, the government will take measures to safeguard the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement if solutions cannot be found to fix the protocol.”