Brexit minister repeats threat to pull plug on Northern Ireland deal after EU shrug

Brexit minister repeats threat to pull plug on Northern Ireland deal after EU shrug
Brussels has point-blank refused to renegotiate the agreement

Lord Frost has repeated his threat to pull the plug on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, following an ambivalent EU reaction to his previous warning.

Speaking at Conservative party conference in Manchester the Brexit minister said the deal he negotiated had “begun to come apart” and needed to be changed.

He again warned the UK government might trigger Article 16 of the deal, an emergency clause which would suspend the agreement.

“We cannot wait for ever. Without an agreed solution soon, we will need to act, using the Article 16 safeguard mechanism, to address the impact the Protocol is having on Northern Ireland,” he told the Tory faithful.

“That may in the end be the only way to protect our country – our people, our trade, our territorial integrity, the peace process, and the benefits of this great UK of which we are all part.”

Northern Ireland has faced shortages of goods imported from the rest of the UK because of the new frictions to trade added by Lord Frost’s agreement.

The situation has also inflamed community tensions, with protests from some loyalists and threats against staff working at ports.

But having just put the Brexit issue to bed the European Union has point blank said it will not return to the negotiating table.

European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said in July: “We will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol. Respecting international legal obligations is of paramount importance.” The EU position is yet to shift on the issue.

When Lord Frost and Boris Johnson originally negotiated the Brexit deal the pair publicly hailed it as a great success. The Conservatives went into the 2019 election promising no more Brexit talks and boasting of an “oven-ready” deal.

But Lord Frost used his speech to Tory conference to claim otherwise, blaming remain campaigners for making his job difficult.

“Of course we wanted to negotiate something better. If it had not been for the madness of the Surrender Act, we could have done so. And we worried right from the start that the Protocol would not take the strain if not handled sensitively,” he said.

“As it has turned out – we were right. The arrangements have begun to come apart even more quickly than we feared. Thanks to the EU’s heavy handed actions, cross-community political support for the Protocol has collapsed.

“The Protocol itself is now undermining the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Businesses, political parties, the institutions, and indeed all in Northern Ireland face instability and disruption.”

Asked about Lord Frost’s comment on Monday morning, a European Commission spokesperson told reporters in Brussels: “You will not be surprised to hear that we do not comment on the sayings or the statements of our partners or any stakeholders, whatever nature they have and however lyrical or aggressive they may be. We are not going to depart from that position in these specific circumstances at all.”

Another spokesperson added: “As you know we’re working intensively to find practical solutions to some of the difficulties that people in Northern Ireland are experiencing and we intend to come forward with solutions soon. It goes without saying that we remain on close contact with our UK counterparts.”

Asked what would happen if the protocol was suspended, the spokesperson said: “I’m not going to comment on a hypothetical scenario. There is of course procedure set out in article 16 read out conjunction with annex 7 to the protocol but beyond that I’m not going to comment on what could happen or what might happen.”

Lord Frost, who was previous a civil servant special advisor, was appointed to the House of Lords and made a minister by Boris Johnson without facing election. He is due to appear at a number of fringe events around the Conservative conference this week.

The Northern Ireland protocol is part of Boris Johnson’s wider withdrawal agreement. The deal was signed to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and suspending it would cause problems across that border.

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