Legislation giving ministers power to scrap parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol will not breach international law, Brandon Lewis has insisted.
The Northern Ireland Secretary has said the new legislation, to be introduced in Parliament on Monday, would be “lawful” and “correct”.
However, the claim has been challenged by both the Labour Party and Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald, who said Mr Lewis was “talking through his hat”.
The Government has confirmed it will table the legislation to override parts of the protocol, which was jointly agreed by the UK and EU as part of the Withdrawal Agreement to keep the Irish land border free-flowing.
The arrangements instead require regulatory checks and customs declarations on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
‘Within the law’
Unionists in Northern Ireland are vociferously opposed to the protocol, claiming it has undermined the region’s place within the United Kingdom.
The DUP has blocked the formation of a new power-sharing government at Stormont following last month’s Assembly election in protest at the protocol.
The Bill due to come before Parliament will see the Government move without the consent of the EU to change the terms of the international treaty in a bid to reduce the checks on the movement of goods across the Irish Sea.
The EU has made clear that such a step would represent a breach of international law and could prompt retaliatory action from the bloc.
Asked if the new legislation will be in breach of the law, Mr Lewis told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme: “The legislation we’ll outline tomorrow is within the law.
“What we’re going to do is lawful and it is correct.
“We will be setting out our legal position on this. People will see that what we’re proposing resolves the key issues within the protocol that don’t work.”
Mr Lewis accused the EU of being “disingenuous” about offering flexibilities on the protocol.
He told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme: “What they’ve been saying consistently across the media and have been reported as saying is that they’re offering flexibilities. Well, they’re not.
“What the EU are offering is some flexibility based on a fully-implemented protocol. That would be, actually, worse than the situation we’ve got today.”
He added: “So, I do think they’ve been disingenuous in suggesting they’re being flexible when in fact they’ve not shown the flexibility that’s required to resolve these issues for the people of Northern Ireland.”
Mr Lewis said he hoped the legislation would persuade the DUP to give their backing to the restoration of the powersharing institutions at Stormont.
“If the DUP are true to what they have said is the reason they withdrew the First Minister in the first place, around wanting to see positive progress on fixing the problems of the protocol.
“This legislation will do that and I hope they will respect that and deliver on that.”
Mr Lewis would not be drawn on whether the new legislation will include plans to scrap the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Northern Ireland.
He told Times Radio: “I’m not going to prejudge, it’s right that we allow Parliament to have first sight of the legislation.
“We have been very clear from the beginning that the governance issue, we understand is an issue. It is a problem for people in Northern Ireland.
“It’s particularly a problem in the unionist community because it’s part of the issue about identity and, again, part of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is respecting both the core communities of Northern Ireland.
“The unionist community do have an issue with identity, which I think sometimes our colleagues and friends in the EU struggle to understand.”
‘Breaching international law’
Shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves told Sky News “it does look like” the Government plans to break international law.
She said: “This Government seems to be developing a record for lawbreaking and it is not one that the Labour Party can support.
“We helped bring in the Good Friday agreement, we are deeply, passionately committed to it.
“We want the Northern Ireland Protocol to work but we know to get it to work we have to negotiate and work with our European partners.”
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald insisted that the protocol is working in its current form.
She added: “What the Tory government is proposing to do in breaching international law is to create huge, huge damage to the northern economy, to the Irish economy.
“They propose to breach international law and are on an agenda of undermining, attacking and damaging the Good Friday Agreement.”
Mrs McDonald continued: “Brandon Lewis is talking through his hat, and not for the first time.
“Brandon Lewis should know, the Tory government should know, that where there are issues to be resolved with the protocol, issues of smoothing out its application, there are mechanisms through which that can happen.
“There is a willingness here, a willingness to engage by the European Commission.
“But the British Government has refused to engage, has not been constructive, has sought a destructive path and is now proposing to introduce legislation that will undoubtedly breach international law.
“And against the expressed democratic wishes of people in the north of Ireland who went to the polls, who made their democratic decision and who have returned a majority of members that support the protocol.”