The UK will not be deterred from taking action to maintain political stability in Northern Ireland by “irresponsible” threats of a trade war with the EU, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has said.
Boris Johnson is due to travel to Belfast on Monday for crisis talks with political parties amid continued political stalemate over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
EU leaders have warned of retaliatory action if the UK moves unilaterally to suspend or change the deal, which governs post-Brexit trade deals, in the face of unionist opposition.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney insisted the EU did not want a trade war at a time of heightened tensions, but said there would be a ‘consequence’ if the UK United abandoned its international treaty obligations.
However, Mr Kwarteng said that under Article 16 of the protocol – part of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU – the government had the right to act unilaterally to protect stability Politics.
“There’s been a lot of talk, a lot of threats, about what the EU will or won’t do. It’s up to them,” he told the BBC’s Sunday Morning show.
“As far as I am concerned, our first duty as the British government is to ensure political stability in Northern Ireland. If that means reviewing the protocol, we absolutely must.
“I think this talk of a trade war is irresponsible and I think it’s completely beyond us.
“That’s up to the EU to decide. We think it would be completely counterproductive if they went into a trade war, but that’s up to them.
Months of simmering tensions over protocol appear to be looming, after the DUP refused to enter a power-sharing executive with Sinn Fein after the May 5 Assembly elections unless it agrees. there are fundamental changes.
The party calls for an end to customs checks on goods from Britain to Northern Ireland – to maintain an open border with the Republic – warning they are hurting business and undermining Northern Ireland’s position North in the UK.
Mr Coveney expressed alarm at reports that the UK government could introduce legislation as early as this week to impose its own provisions after the latest talks between Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic did not reach an agreement.
He said such a move would be “deeply damaging” to UK-Ireland relations and could “fundamentally undermine” the functioning of the institutions of the peace process in Northern Ireland.
“Everyone understands if the UK government decides to put international law aside to create significant uncertainty on the island of Ireland in terms of joining the single market, and a whole host of other things… well of course there is a consequence, the EU is obliged to react, but this is not where we want to be,” he told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge program on Sunday.
“The last thing the EU wants, the last thing Ireland wants is tension with the UK, especially at this time given what is happening in Ukraine, Russian aggression and the need to work together on the international scene.
“Unfortunately, it was the UK government briefings this week that raised a real red flag in Dublin and Brussels because the UK government is now threatening to break international law to break a treaty it signed with the EU. . .”
Mr Kwarteng, however, insisted the UK government must be able to act ‘sovereignly’ in Northern Ireland, and said any new EU tariffs would take ‘a very long time’ to enact .
“Northern Ireland is as much a part of the UK as England, Cornwall, the South East, and we are responsible for that,” he told Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
“Any tariff situation should be submitted to arbitrators. It’s not something they can do willy-nilly, arbitrarily.
“Article 16 is enshrined (in the Withdrawal Agreement). It allows people to act unilaterally and ultimately we have to be ready to invoke it.
Downing Street said Mr Johnson would use a series of private meetings in Belfast on Monday to deliver a ‘hard message’ that any ‘solution’ to protocol must involve the parties coming together to form an executive and assembly.
He is expected to say that while the UK Government will ‘play its part to ensure political stability’, politicians need to ‘get back to work’ so that they can answer the ‘bread and butter questions’ for the voters.
Ahead of his visit, however, Sinn Fein – which is now the largest party in the Assembly after the election – accused the Prime Minister of being “in cahoots” with the DUP and supporting its “blocking tactics”.