The Irish government has accused Boris Johnson of trying to sabotage the Northern Ireland peace process with a “unilateral provocative act” based on spurious claims about the Good Friday agreement.
As Brexit talks hang by a thread following the UK’s threat to renege on parts of the withdrawal agreement, Thomas Byrne, Ireland’s European affairs minister, branded the UK government’s claims that it was to protect the peace process as “completely false”.
He said what would happen as a result of this bill becoming law was “completely unthinkable”.
Relations with the EU plunged to a new low in the last 24 hours after the UK rejected its demands to withdraw the parts of the internal markets bill that would give the government power to override the Northern Ireland protocol.
What is the UK internal market bill?
The internal market bill aims to enforce compatible rules and regulations regarding trade in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Some rules, for example around food safety or air quality, which were formerly set by EU agreements, will now be controlled by the devolved administrations or Westminster. The internal market bill insists that devolved administrations have to accept goods and services from all the nations of the UK – even if their standards differ locally.
This, says the government, is in part to ensure international traders have access to the UK as a whole, confident that standards and rules are consistent.
The Scottish government has criticised it as a Westminster “power grab”, and the Welsh government has expressed fears it will lead to a race to the bottom. If one of the countries that makes up the UK lowers their standards, over the importation of chlorinated chicken, for example, the other three nations will have to accept chlorinated chicken too.
It has become even more controversial because one of its main aims is to empower ministers to pass regulations even if they are contrary to the withdrawal agreement reached with the EU under the Northern Ireland protocol.
The text does not disguise its intention, stating that powers contained in the bill “have effect notwithstanding any relevant international or domestic law with which they may be incompatible or inconsistent”.
Martin Belam and Owen Bowcott
The move has also soured Anglo-Irish relations, with no warning of the plan to undo the Brexit arrangements on Northern Ireland by one of the co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement.
Byrne told BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme: “It’s a totally unacceptable way to do business, and we would value very close relations with Britain. In fact, good relations with Britain are absolutely essential for the peace process to work, as well as at the lack of a hard border, and good relations within the north and north/south.
“This was a unilateral provocative act, that is … uniquely unprecedented. The statement that this is to help the Good Friday agreement is completely false and is completely wrong.
“The constitutional status of Northern Ireland is, first of all, protected in the Good Friday agreement, is protected and mentioned again in the protocol which Boris Johnson agreed less than a year ago.
“The entire premise of the Good Friday agreement is, in fact, agreement between the peoples of the north, the north and south and between Britain and Ireland. So you cannot then allow one side, in any aspect of the complicated relationships on the two islands, decided to change things unilaterally, and that’s that’s not unique to our situation.
“What is not expected is one side of that [peace agreement] simply pulls the plug and says no, we’re going to change something without even consulting,” he added.
Byrne called on Johnson to think again and allow “common sense to prevail” and realise he is threatening the peace process, which took “decades” of “hard work” to achieve.
“Boris Johnson agreed this agreement. He ran the general election on the basis of support this agreement, and this is absolutely unprecedented. To then turn around months later and say, well actually we didn’t realise that this was like this?
“Everybody knew the complexities of the island of Ireland, and everybody knew this agreement would be to everybody’s benefit both in the island of Ireland and and in [those of] Great Britain,” said Byrne.
The German ambassador to the UK tweeted on Thursday night that he had not in his 30 years as a diplomat “experienced such a fast, intentional and profound deterioration of a negotiation”.
In more than 30 years as a diplomat I have not experienced such a fast, intentional and profound deterioration of a negotiation. If you believe in partnership between the UK and the EU like I do then don’t accept it.
— Andreas Michaelis (@GermanAmbUK) September 10, 2020
Johnson is also facing a backbench rebellion led by Sir Bob Neill with up to 30 MPs reportedly willing to vote for an amendment on the offending parts of the bill and some including Sir Roger Gale saying if it the bill is tabled unamended he will vote against it entirely.